WATCH: Sabrina Chap Sings for Equality, Marching Baton in Hand

By Daniel Reynolds

Originally published on Advocate.com October 18 2012 3:00 AM ET

In 1999, English playwright Sarah Kane hanged herself by her shoelaces in a hospital bathroom. Only 28 years old, Kane was regarded by many as one of the rising stars of her generation, and her death sent shock waves through the theater world. For Sabrina Chap, a college student and artist who had recently worked on a production of Kane’s play Phaedra’s Love, the news was devastating.

“I don’t remember exactly where I was at the time,” says Chap, who grew to become a singer, playwright, and spoken word performer. “What I do remember was the shift in me, the space slightly to the left of my heart that hurt when I heard it was suicide.”

Nearly a decade later, Live Through This, a selection of artwork and essays by women artists, was born from this heartache. Edited by Chap, the book challenges the myth that a creative woman is doomed to self-destruction by recounting stories from those who suffered conflicts and survived.

“A lot of people are famous for their self-destructive tendencies,” says Chap, who cites Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Anna Nicole Smith, and even literary characters like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina as among the casualties. “It’s time we heard the stories of the women that lived.”

Now in a rerelease, Live Through This delves deep into the psyches of poets, dancers, playwrights, and performers (including Patricia Smith, Eileen Myles, Kate Bornstein, and Margaret Cho) to reveal the forces that drive artists toward both passion and pain. What keeps them going? How do they overcome hardships, in order to survive and thrive? Dealing with subjects such as Weight Watchers, flossing, and chemotherapy, the entries move from laughter to tears with the turn of a page.

Chap’s own sustaining force is music. Since she was 5 years old, Chap has played classical music on the piano. The passion led her to study composition at a liberal arts college, where, due to a feminist spirit and sapphic stirrings, she felt at odds with her conservative classmates.

“I dealt with self-destructive impulses in college,” Chap says. “I looked around, and I seemed to be the only one that was dealing with these issues. And I didn’t have a community of like-minded artists to turn to as a means of support.”

The experience planted the seed that would become Live Through This, which is intended as a resource for those in similar straits. At the time, however, she immersed herself in her art, where she encountered a love that would change her life: composer Scott Joplin.

“I picked up Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ and it was so much fun,” Chap says. “Like classical music, it’s technical, but there’s a rhythm to it. You can really dance to it. Ragtime is pure joy.”

“Joyous” could also describe Chap’s latest album, We Are the Parade, a veritable marching band of tracks that incorporates 25 horns into its production. The record — which draws inspiration from Jacques Brel and the atmosphere music of 30 Rock — channels the raw energy of ragtime and an old-school musical, with lyrics that evoke a contemporary Cole Porter or Tom Lehrer. The album art features Chap with a drum strapped to her chest, her mouth open in an exclamation of delight.

“I used to be a drum major in high school, and I wanted my album to have an out-in-the-streets, rousing feel,” Chap says. “I consider it a rallying cry.”

Chap’s queer identity is not often addressed in her album, but the title track is a clarion call to pride: “So you’re thinking you want to marry me? Well, baby, take my hand. It’s a long walk up to equality, and so let’s strike the band up.” The artist wrote the lyrics after the passage of Proposition 8, the ballot measure that defined marriage in California as a union between one man and one woman.

“When a whole state gets together and decides that you’re not worth equal rights and you’re not worthy of love, that’s a terrifying thing,” says Chap. “This song was my way of establishing a form of protest that wasn’t angry but rather celebratory.”

The music video features footage from last year’s pride parade in New York City, newly jubilant from the passage of marriage equality. Chap portrays the grand marshal, ushering waves of drag queens, same-sex couples, and rainbow flag-bearers down the street. Don’t blink — even Dan Savage, founder of the It Gets Better campaign, flashes a smile at the camera.

For Chap, the parade isn’t confined to a summer’s day on a Manhattan avenue. Throughout the year, she tours colleges and imparts lessons of survival and support from Live Through This.

“Growing up, I didn’t even hear the word ‘lesbian’ until college,” Chap says. “You don’t even know that someone sitting next to you be can be your strength. It’s important for that kid in a small town to know that safety, that community isn’t confined to Chelsea. They can find it anywhere.”