The first time Brooke Axtell met Katy Perry was three days ago, when they rehearsed for the Grammys. Tonight, they’ll take the stage together, as Perry sings her ballad “By the Grace of God” and Axtell reads a written-word piece she penned specifically for the occasion. So who is Brooke Axtell?
Axtell is an Austin-based writer, activist, and performance artist. She’s also director of communications for Allies Against Slavery, a nonprofit that fights human trafficking. Axtell herself was trafficked by her nanny when she was seven years old, she says. And this experience made her more vulnerable to experiencing domestic violence later in life, she explains—a major risk factor for entering abusive relationships is sexual abuse before the age of 18. As an adult, she was involved in an abusive relationship that helped spur her toward activism. Now, at age 34, she’s used to speaking in front of crowds. But until tonight, she’s never performed for a live audience of more than a thousand people.
Axtell and I spoke on the phone Saturday—the morning after a grueling day of rehearsals—about how she got to the Grammys, the value of performance art for domestic abuse survivors, and the ways tonight will be different from the Super Bowl halftime show.
So how did you end up performing at the Grammys?
The executive producer of the Grammys, Ken Ehrlich, called me. He’d heard about my work as an activist and speaker in Austin through SafePlace, a domestic violence and rape prevention center in Austin.
What was that phone call like?
Ken said they want to find ways to not only honor the creative work of their musicians and performing artists, but to also give them a platform to speak about issues that are important to them. I know last year they addressed the issue of gay marriage [when Macklemore performed “Same Love” while Queen Latifah officiated a mass wedding of gay and straight couples]. This year they wanted it to be the issue of violence against women.
Did Ken mention that you’d be performing with Katy Perry?
He told me that he wanted to integrate her song and my voice. He asked me to write a speech and send it to them to see if it would be a good fit. They were immediately excited about it and passed it on to Katy, and she loved it as well.
That must have been pretty exciting for you.
Initially they wanted to keep it a secret. So I couldn’t share it with even people closest to me for about a week or so. So it wasn’t until I could share it with loved ones that it started to feel like it was actually real.
When did you first meet Katy?
Our first conversation in person was yesterday at rehearsal. Up until that point, I had listened to the song, I had read her lyrics. I had shared my piece via email. So yesterday we finally mapped out how the pieces would flow side-by-side.
Did you get the sense that domestic violence is an issue that is specifically important to Katy?
I think it’s clear from the song that she is choosing to perform that she has had an experience in her life where she felt very devastated by a relationship, and I think that’s her entry-point into this.
Has Katy ever said that “By the Grace of God” is explicitly about domestic abuse?
She did not say that to me.
What will the performance look like?
We talked about a few different concepts. One was an overlap between my piece and hers, but in rehearsal we decided it would flow better if I did my piece before her song starts.
Are you a longtime Katy Perry fan?
I mean, she is an incredible entertainer. She has found a really fascinating way to create compelling pop music and bring elements of gravitas but also a lightheartedness. It’s pretty interesting to see her range going from the Super Bowl—how lighthearted and wild that was—to this collaboration, which is going to be much more intimate and transparent.
What was it like for you to watch that halftime show and think: I am going to be onstage with this woman in a few weeks?
I actually laughed. It was such a crazy spectacle. I was just wondering how I was going to follow the dancing sharks.
So you aren’t going to ride in on an enormous lion?
I was really hoping to ride in on a lion.
How did you decide what to write for this?
I wanted to find a balance between sharing the reality of my own trauma but also to emphasize that there is a path to freedom, and to offer a call to action: to encourage women in this position to value their own lives and their voices and reach out for help.
I don’t know if you’ve been following the story of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who lugs a mattress around campus to call attention to her alleged sexual assault—
I did read a few pieces about that, and I thought it was incredibly courageous and creative.
Do you feel like that’s similar in some way to what you do?
There’s definitely a commonality in looking at the relationship between performance art and trauma and how the two can enter into conversation with each other. These issues are so difficult to address. I love seeing young women integrating performance art and social justice.
Do you worry that people might see your Grammys performance as a PR stunt—as a way for Katy to gain social-justice credibility?
I’ve been given the freedom to write my own speech. If I were just there to stand up as some sort of prop to promote her, I don’t think I’d be given so much range and freedom to have my own content. They accepted the first version that I sent them. It’s exactly what is going to be performed. Not a word has been changed.
What do you hope people take from your performance?
I just hope there is a collective sense that this is not something to be ashamed of.
What will be going through your mind before you walk onstage tonight?
I’ll be thinking of the survivors I’ve worked with over the years. I know if I speak from that place, I’ll be very peaceful and very clear. I’ll try not to focus on the fact that Beyonce and Madonna and Lady Gaga are sitting right there. And I won’t be wearing a shark costume.