Concord student wins songwriting competition for social justice

  • Mairead Guy (left) and Madison Simpson (right), members of Sweet Petunia, pose for an EP cover. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 7/25/2020 3:10:17 PM

Madison Simpson, a Concord High graduate and member of the Berklee College of Music class of 2020, wants to spread awareness about AIDS in America. Concluding her senior year of college, Simpson wanted to enter Berklee’s 10th annual Songs for Social Change competition. Although she didn’t win the past three years, Simpson tied for third place this spring.

The goal of Songs for Social Change is to encourage students to write songs about social issues that promote a positive change.

With more than 90 submissions, Simpson faced much competition this year. According to a Berklee press release, “songwriters who received awards, honorable mentions, and judge’s shout-outs, and those acknowledged in the contest’s showcase, hail from 16 U.S. states as well as Australia, England, Hong Kong, India, Macedonia, Norway, Qatar, Singapore, and Spain.”

Although there is a cash prize, Simpson was more motivated by the awareness her song “Quilt Too Big To Fold” could bring.

After some research, Simpson stumbled across the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The AIDS Quilt is a massive quilt used to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS. According to the National AIDS Memorial, the quilt weighs approximately 54 tons, and covers a space larger than a football field. So far, there are “more than 48,000 panels dedicated to more than 100,000 individuals.”

“The loved ones of people that died of AIDS-related causes will create these coffin-sized quilt squares, and … embroider in artifacts from the person’s life or things that they enjoy doing or like. [So, each square is] just like a individual memorial to that one person. And then, all of those quilt squares get sewn together to make the memorial quilt,” Simpson says.

Although Simpson doesn’t have any personal experience with AIDS or the quilt, it’s a topic near to her heart.

“I am somebody that identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community. So, it is sort of a story that I feel more comfortable telling, especially since the narration that I like – the point of view that I wrote in the song – is sort of its first person. . . . [So,] although it isn’t my story, it is a story that is adjacent to my own identity. And that is why I felt more comfortable writing in the first person,” Simpson says.

Simpson is clear that she doesn’t want to speak for a community, especially if she is not apart of it. So, she sees her music as a means of uplifting the awareness of AIDS in America today.

Nancy, the protagonist of “Quilt Too Big To Fold,” is a loved one left in a wave of grief after losing her partner to AIDS. Her response is to spend all day knitting a blanket, analogous to the AIDS Quilt.

Simpson feels her song gives way to the true impact of the disease. Further, “Quilt Too Big To Fold” unveils the larger impact of the disease: although the CDC says that, “since the beginning of the epidemic, 675,000 people with AIDS in the United States have died,” there are so many more people impacted. The massive size of the quilt shows just how incalculable the effects of the disease are.

“All the poor excuses I was sold, from a government who doesn’t hear me. Now, I’m stitching up a quilt too big to fold,” Nancy says in “Quilt Too Big To Fold.”

Now that she has graduated, Simpson doesn’t know what exactly the future holds. Like many graduating college seniors, Simpson is facing a difficult economy upon starting adulthood. However, this is not stopping Simpson or her band, Sweet Petunia.

Simpson has always been inclined to write songs about social activism and social change. The pandemic, she says, hasn’t affected her songwriting or passion for social justice. Her band is an example of that.

The goal of Sweet Petunia is to increase inclusivity and space for all gender identities.

“We are sort of trying to carve a space in the music industry that is more inclusive for women and for people of marginalized gender identities, and sort of like showing the younger generation that there is space for people like them,” Simpson said.

So, although unsure of what her next step is, Simpson knows that the important work showcased in Berklee’s Songs for Social Change will continue to drive her amidst troubling times.

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