Interview: Talking allyship with FOOL

Meet the Danish band who’s got the Dostoevsky quote: “The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month” written in their Facebook-bio, and who’s using conversation as a weapon to make themselves and other men aware that gender inequality is real – and that something has to change.

Photo: Nikolaj Rohde Simonsen
Photo: Nikolaj Rohde Simonsen

Back in 2018, when Danish pop duo FOOL took the stage at Roskilde Festival – Northern Europe’s biggest music festival – drummer Rasmus Jarby, aka Jabs, was wearing a Girls Are Awesome t-shirt matching the stickers on their instruments. “That’s cause we think girls are awesome!” he says with a laugh as he lights a cigarette outside our Copenhagen office two and a half years later.

“I remember that I went to your place one day, and you’d bought this t-shirt and had all these stickers that you just started to put on everything,” Adrian Mikkelsen, the lead singer of the group, recalls. 

It all came from a statement that Jabs had just heard somewhere: Whatever you can do, I can do bleeding.I just thought that was such a cool statement. Most men don’t understand that every month, some women go through insane pain when they menstruate, but still go to work, still do their thing,he says, followed by a joke about men whining whenever they’re hungover.

He loved the statement so much he thought about printing it on a t-shirt. The guys also incorporated the sentence into a song they were working on at the time. It turned out to be a “shit song”, they confess, and the t-shirt never actually materialized – but it led Jabs to buy our merch instead and flash the Girls Are Awesome statement on stage in front of thousands of fans dancing in the evening sun.

allyship | FOOL | pop culture
Photo by Nikolaj Rohde Simonsen

WOMAN: Can’t change how you feel

Back then, in 2018, they entered the charts with singles like “Outcast”, “Strapped” and “Worry”. Now, they’ve unleashed their debut album MANGO & LIMELIGHT which contains the track “WOMAN”. It’s inspired by the poem collection Milk & Honey by Indian-Canadian poet and author Rupi Kaur, that Adrian got from his dad. “I’m not the biggest reader,” he says, “but I just fell for these poems and started writing the verse on the piano.” 

The writing process behind “WOMAN” is pretty representative of how FOOL normally works. One of them brings up an idea inspired by something current in his life, and the other person reacts to that idea, says Jabs who felt himself instantly relating to Adrian’s idea for “WOMAN”. 

“I have a wife who’s suffered a lot from the HPV vaccine and the emotional aspect of seeing her go through all this, seeing her body act out and then experiencing all the problems that follow from being in a relationship with someone who’s having such a hard time – There was just something in these words that I instantly connected to,” he explains. 

“Instead of having a political conversation about how everything’s fucked and how men are idiots – which they are,” Adrian says, as Jabs laughs in affirmation, “- we wanted to acknowledge that women go through all these things, but without trying to put ourselves in their place and pretend like we know what it’s like,” he adds. “Yeah, that’s what’s in the recurring sentence ‘Can’t change how you feel,’ because I can feel and mean so many things, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change how you as a woman experience it,” Jabs elaborates.

Conversation is key 

I’ve been looking forward to this interview, I tell the boys before we get started. I’m curious to know what caused two guys to openly support women. I want to know if and how guys even talk to each other about stuff like this – especially if some of them don’t necessarily share the same social concern. And I wanna know how we can make more men aware of the concept of allyship and the fact that women aren’t – and shouldn’t be – the only ones to call for gender equality.

As big Girls Are Awesome fans, Adrian and Jabs have been looking forward to the interview too, they say; but they also express a certain awe about doing an interview like this.

“I assume that a lot of men would have a hard time having a conversation about this, and personally, I can also feel a certain shyness regarding the topic,” Adrian says. “In a way, it feels dangerous to comment on this. First, because I can say something wrong, but also… wait, no – that’s probably it!” He looks up to catch the eyes of his friend, who rapidly assures him that that’s also a super relevant place to start the conversation. 

“There’s a fear of saying something, whether it’s about race, gender or sexuality; it’s such a delicate conversation and you can sometimes feel like you’ll need a Ph.D to even get started, because there are so many faults you can commit – even unconsciously. And it’s not enough to say, ‘Well, I didn’t mean it,’ cause that’s such a big part of the problem as well!”

I agree that this is indeed a conversation with more at stake, and that missteps are undeniably a part of it. For some women who often experience inequality and sexism, it might feel normal to have these talks with the girlfriends; but for two guys, it might seem easier to just not have the conversation and stay away from the debate. So why risk getting your fingers burned, if no one forced you to light a fire?

“You have to learn to not give a fuck and then learn underway,” Jabs says. “And if we fail or say something that we shouldn’t have said, then we have to learn from that. Again, it’s the same with questions about race and sexuality; you have to be willing to sacrifice yourself to make a difference. That’s the whole point if you’re a white, heterosexual man!”

Photo: Nikolaj Rhode Simonsen

»You have to be willing to sacrifice yourself to make a difference. That’s the whole point if you’re a white, heterosexual man!«

If there’s one thing I’m learning from my time with FOOL, it’s that contrary to most portraits of male friendship you’ll find in any average Hollywood-movie, they actually talk about everything. They’re not just band mates or good friends; they’re conversational partners, and that’s shaped the way they understand the world, move through it and learn from it. 

“Often, I come to Jabs and say, ‘this happened yesterday’ or ‘someone said that…’” Adrian says. “For example, one time a dude grabbed my friend’s breasts at a club because he was drunk and thought it would be fun. And what do you do in this situation? All of the other boys are just being quiet, and you think, ‘Maybe I should just do the same.’ But then we talked about how you just have to shut down all of these things. Whether it’s a quick joke about a woman in a kitchen, or whatever. It has to be shut down one way or another and you have to stick out from your friends.”

For 45 minutes on a sunny Monday in September, I’m invited into a pretty unique space between two friends. Sometimes as a part of it, and sometimes rather as an observer. And I get reminded how important these conversations are. 

“Do you remember when you told that story, and we started talking about how I have a pretty bad temper, so my initial feeling was wanting to slap him?” Jabs asks and looks back at Adrian – “Mine was too!” Adrian says. “Yeah, but then we talked about the girls, and how it’s probably more important that there’s an environment where they can be the ones who shut it down instead of us doing the classical man-thing where we act up and take on the fight ourselves and show the whole world how strong we are. It’s just so interesting,” Jabs reflects.

Their conversation goes on, and Adrian tells Jabs about something he’d just experienced the previous Friday, where he witnessed another of his female friends dealing with a nasty drunk man. It affected him so much that she ended up stopping him on their way home to talk about the incident. “She was like, ‘This was nothing compared to what I normally experience’, and I just thought about why I, as a man, all of a sudden felt so personally affected by this experience – why did I feel like it was about me?” he says and looks to Jabs to get a friend’s perspective on the whole thing. 

“There’s just so much in this,” he starts. “There’s why you take it personally, but also the statement where she says that this was peanuts compared to what she normally experiences. That says so much about how much crap women have to deal with.”

Photo: Nikolaj Rhode Simonsen

“Most people think that conversation is a competition, and there aren’t that many people who can say, ‘You know what? You’re right’.

It should be clear by now that Adrian and Jabs are used to having these talks, but a quick assumption is – and correct me if I’m wrong – that not all men feel like they have to. I don’t picture the dude with the uninvited boob-grab going back to his friends to discuss how creepy men can be and how much women go through on an average night out. “As an ally or a guy who’s chosen to call bullshit on stuff like this, how do you have a conversation with guys who might not be in the same place as you?” I hear my own voice saying. 

“I remember I had a really positive experience once where I was seeing an old friend and some of his friends. They were wearing ties, you know, and they were super intelligent and well-educated, had good jobs and so on. We had a talk about inequality and they instantly said the typical things like, ‘but is there really a problem?’ and ‘but isn’t it fair?’,” Jabs recalls.

He reminds me of his temper, but tells me that with time, he’s learned that nothing good comes from shouting at people whose perspectives you want to change.

“So instead, I was like, ‘Before you say this, trying going home to your sister and mother – who you’re currently talking about, by the way – and ask them how they experience it.’ And I actually ended up with a really good talk where they said like, ‘Sure, I’ve never thought of it like that’”, he says.

“Most people think that conversation is a competition, and there aren’t that many people who can say, ‘You know what? You’re right’. But then suggest that they can try it out at home and think about it again when they wake up from being drunk the night before.”

Photo: Nikolaj Rhode Simonsen
Photo: Nikolaj Rohde Simonsen

Male role models for female empowerment

Our interview is coming to an end, but it would feel wrong to not ask about the people who’ve shaped FOOL’s interest in gender equality and maybe taught them that it’s doable to be a man and support women’s rights all at the same time.

Well, there are a lot of female role models to pick from,” Jabs says; “It’s harder to find the men.” Chuckling, he thinks about it for a while and then remembers some of his all-time childhood heroes: The band Nirvana, and the late front man Kurt Cobain in particular, who he’s turned to during lockdown.

“It’s been so much fun rediscovering that Kurt Cobain – already in the beginning of the 90’s – said and did some things that are just so relevant now. It’s everything from him wearing a dress and nail polish, to the way he talked about women. I actually found a track that I didn’t know so well. It’s called “Been A Son”, do you know it?” he asks and looks at me. 

Despite the fact that I actually spent a big part of my teens listening to Nirvana and thinking that Kurt Cobain in his legendary MTV Unplugged cardigan was the cutest thing ever, I don’t know that track.

“It’s a really intense punk song, where the lyrics are something like ‘she should have been…’ all sorts of things; ‘she should have worn the crown of thorns, she should have blablabla’, ‘she should have been a son.’ That track is from ’89 and it’s just so woke,” he says with excitement.

We’re all quiet for a moment, when Adrian finally looks up and stresses that this might be a cheap shot coming after that, but to him, his biggest role model is Jabs. “He’s for sure my woman power inspiration,” he says. And after having heard how much Adrian has turned to Jabs in the search of someone to talk to about these things, I get where he’s coming from and assure him that it’s not a cheap shot at all. Rather, it proves the importance and impact of the people we surround ourselves with. The importance of creating a safe space where it’s okay to make mistakes – like believing that it’s the right thing to stay quiet in an unpleasant situation because that’s what the rest of the guys are doing – because you can talk about how to learn from it afterwards.

I’m about to stop my recorder, but give FOOL the opportunity to do a shoutout to their fans reading this. The answer from Jabs comes promptly: 

“Women, we’re listening! And men, listen!”

allyship | FOOL | pop culture
Photo: Nikolaj Rohde Simonsen
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