Every moment with Chelsea Manning felt surreal, like a dystopian sci-fi dream: Fade in on a windy Saturday night in Durham, North Carolina. Thunder crackles ominously in the summer sky as Manning arrives at an electronic music festival called Moogfest, looking every bit the part of a cool hacker chick: black tank top, leather combat boots, gold hashtag charm hanging from her necklace. Surveilling the city square with a calm intensity, Manning focuses her gaze on a neon-lit bar down the street, from which the faint sound of pounding music is drifting. “Let’s do something fun!” she orders.
Suddenly, the clouds break into torrential rain, sending shrieking festival-goers scattering for cover. Squaring her shoulders, Manning pops open her pink umbrella. “We can do this,” she says under her breath. Cue Orbital’s ethereal rave classic “Halcyon On and On,” swelling strings building into a thumping crescendo as her solitary figure disappears into the darkness. Fade out.
Manning is best known as the Iraq intelligence analyst who sent thousands of secret government files to WikiLeaks in 2010 — a headline-exploding act that marked her as one of modern American history’s most controversial figures. Deemed either a heroic whistleblower or heinous traitor, depending on who you ask, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in military prison. She became the first American prisoner to undergo gender-affirming hormone therapy in a military prison before she was released unexpectedly by President Obama last year.
Manning is now delivering speeches across the country on her areas of specialty: the rising threat of authoritarian control over our daily lives via technology like data surveillance. She also ran as a Democrat for senator in Maryland, losing in this month’s primaries to incumbent Ben Cardin.
Manning was at Moogfest for a keynote conversation with journalist Aminatou Sou called “The Future of Creativity.” A security-analyst-turned-activist might seem like a left-field choice for a music festival’s marquee act. But Moogfest has always been a technology-obsessed event since its inception in 2004; the company’s trailblazing founder, Bob Moog, invented an analog synthesizer in the late ‘60s that came to define modern music production. This year’s lineup was driven by female, transgender, and non-binary artists — and Manning fit right in with all the techie-types milling around the downtown Durham music venues where the festival took place.
Most people don’t realize that Manning is a drum and bass-loving DJ and producer who grew up with one foot in underground nightlife. Electronic music has long been her stabilizing force, especially now, as she struggles to acclimate to the politically-fraught, hyper-networked world she walked into after prison. To Manning, the anarchic spirit of early internet culture and illicit raves are intertwined — just look at her favorite movie, Hackers. During her keynote, Manning even tells the crowd: “I like to think I’m living in an ‘80s retro cyberpunk movie.”
Chelsea Manning was introduced to the rave scene at illegal outdoor parties in Wales. She had moved to Europe from her hometown in Oklahoma at age 13 with her mother, following her parents’ divorce. Soon, she began taking the train to coffee houses in nearby Bristol, where many pivotal trip-hop acts like Massive Attack got their start in the ‘90s and early 2000s. (“I remember the song DJ Alligator ‘Blow My Whistle Bitch’ was the hit at the time,” Manning recalled.)
“Music made me realize that we engage in political acts everyday.”
In 2005, Manning moved back to the U.S. at age 17 to live with her father and work an internship as a software programmer. After a fight, she fled to Chicago, homeless and living out of her truck for a spell before she was taken in by an aunt in Maryland. In between college and two part-time jobs, Manning was producing electronic music, DJing local shows, and hitting clubs like Nations, Apex, and Chaos in Washington, DC with gay and lesbian friends. “The queer club scene was where you went on a Saturday night just to be free,” Manning told me.
Music continued to be a refuge for Manning in prison, where she spent prolonged stints in isolation, attempted suicide twice, and suffered abuse that the UN denounced as cruel and inhuman. Under confinement, Manning found some solace by tuning in religiously to the local radio station, every Saturday night from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., to hear DJs play club hits by the likes of Calvin Harris. “Just being able to listen to music I actually enjoy an enormous amount was powerful, especially in a place where everything else is... not so cool,” Manning said with a bitter chuckle. “It gave me a sense of hope, joy, and connection with the outside world.”
“Art and music are a resource from which we can pull for self-care, to continue to engage.”
In 2017, after serving seven years, Manning was released from prison. She was horrified to realize that the issues that drove her to the leak, such as police surveillance and rising political authoritarianism, had only intensified while she’d been locked up. Manning found herself immediately cast in the role of a political activist, and began her unending speaking tour of conferences, political rallies, and universities. She also started working on a memoir, and will be the subject of a Showtime-backed documentary called XY Chelsea to be released later this year.
For now, Manning’s twin passions for making music and coding have taken a backseat to her political pursuits. “It’s the environment we’re in,” she explained. “If I’d been released in a less intense time, I probably wouldn’t be as out there.”
“Queer and trans people, as well as people of color and immigrants, all feel embattled right now,” she continued. “I can’t stand by and watch my friends have their lives turned upside down. So many people have helped me that I feel I need to give back. I’ve been given this opportunity to have a platform, and I want to use it for good.”
Still, she hopes to work on music again soon. At Moogfest, she even bought a Roland TR-09 drum machine at the festival’s gear fair, and told me how stoked she was to recover her vintage Electribe synthesizer from storage after prison — “It still had its vacuum tubes!” she crowed.
On that stormy Saturday night at Moogfest, Manning marched through the downpour with her pink umbrella, arriving at a crowded bar where Gavin Rayna Russom — a virtuosic electronic musician and LCD Soundsystem member — was playing a live analog synth set. Pushing past rain-slicked queer kids in flannel and tattoos, Manning made her way to front of the rickety stage. Save for a few shy smiles from trans club kids, no one seems to recognize her.
Afterwards, Manning ducked into the greenroom and introduced herself to Russom self-consciously as “kind of a fan.” The two began chatting about a meet-up that Russom, who is trans, held at Moogfest with local LGBTQ community groups and festival attendees.
Then Manning jumped up and walked over to Russom’s synths, poking at the Eurorack system while asking technical questions like how its harmonic oscillator works. Poking at its tangled wires and knobs, Manning was the most relaxed I’d seen her all weekend, like a smiling kid playing with her toys.
The conversation turned to the end of Russom’s set, where she had knelt on the ground and spread her arms out wide in a cryptic gesture. “What was that about? It was cute!” Manning commented, offering her own interpretation: “You had all these amps surrounding you, and it looked like you were just swimming through the sound…”
Later, Manning remarked to me that music is ultimately about function over form. “You forget sometimes, as an artist, that music isn’t about what’s coming out of the speakers,” she said. “It’s about the connections we create on the dancefloor. Those have an impact far greater than a few seconds of soundwaves floating through the air.”
Before Russom’s set, I’d brought Manning to an industrial warehouse to see Yves Tumor, a Berlin-based experimental musician known for his hair-raising live shows. Manning entered the pitch-black room shielding her eyes from flashing strobe lights. The walls clanged with Tumor’s demonic yelps and roars of warped noise. Arms crossed protectively across her chest, Manning winced wordlessly through the audio-visual assault until our crew finally left a half hour later.
“I’ve been in a lot of intense situations — not just combat, but in prison and other situations,” Manning later told me. “I call these moments PTSD moments, but it’s not so severe where I’m having a panic attack. It’s more like, whoa, I’m feeling feelings.” She shrugged dismissively. “I was able to push through. It’s fine.”
Yet it was clear throughout our time together that even as Manning trudges forward into the future, she’s haunted by her past. When we popped into a pizza parlor that night for a slice, she tugged at her too-tight wristband and complained it felt like zip-ties. Then she looked down to admire the handiwork of our wooden table — she’s been obsessed over carpentry ever since her stint in the Kansas prison’s woodshop. When she autographed the wall of the theater where she gives her speech, she joked that her signature — signed in loopy script with a heart over the “i” — was honed from all the letters she wrote behind bars.
Manning’s time in prison also casts a shadow on how she listens to music. Back then, Manning explained, if she heard a song she liked on the radio, she never knew if she’d hear it again. Now, capturing these fleeting moments of pleasure is a privilege, and she’s developed a “deep appreciation of the repeat button,” even if it drives her friends crazy.
Along with rave anthems like The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” and Darude’s “Sandstorm,” Manning’s musical taste also skews towards pop stars like Charli XCX, Britney Spears, and Selena Gomez. These “positive, forward-thinking, and danceable” songs, she said, help her to transcend the ugliness around her — “I’ll listen to some trip-hop and imagine something grander, more beautiful, or different.”
Recovering from trauma is difficult under intense public scrutiny and her whirlwind schedule. “I’m realizing that I need to slow down to heal and grow as a person again,” Manning said in her speech. “Initially I was like, ‘everything’s over now.’ But there’s real work to be done. I’m going to be dealing with this deep, emotional baggage for a long time.” She went on to tell attendees that she thinks “that art and music are a resource from which we can pull for self-care, to continue to engage and say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to give up.’”
In late May, Manning tweeted a photo of painted toenails standing on a high window ledge with the words “I’m sorry.” “I’m not really cut out for this world,” read a second tweet. “I tried adapting to this world out here but I failed you — I couldn’t do this anymore…” That night, armed police broke into her apartment in Maryland while she wasn’t home. By the following day, the earlier tweets had been replaced by a tweet written in third-person saying she was safe, followed by numbers for trans and LGBT suicide prevention hotlines.
Despite her struggle to acclimate to life after prison, however, Manning’s message is still one of hope. At Moogfest, when I asked her if the same impulse behind the leaks still drives her today, she nodded her head vehemently. “I value the idea that people can determine who they are without interference; for us to be able to build communities and have a safe place to live without a constant state of fear,” she said slowly, as if weighing her every word.
Even if we can’t dismantle the government or corporations like Facebook and Google, Manning said we should at the very least be holding them more accountable, rather than letting them deprive us of our agency. “I don’t believe that the best of humanity comes from these institutions,” she said, “just as I don’t think the best music ever made is packaged and delivered by record companies.”
We can address problems in radical, community-minded ways without giving more power to the carceral system, she argued. “Music made me realize that we engage in political acts everyday,” she said in a climactic moment in her speech. “Politics and art go hand in hand. You can’t separate them. My whole point of me being involved in all this is to show that elections are not where politics happen,” she said to the crowd. “It happens where we are. Everyone can do this.” The room erupted into applause.
Manning spent her final hours at the festival with KRS-One, an O.G. hip-hop rapper from The Bronx. When the legendary MC took the stage and cut the beat, it almost seemed as if he were directing his anti-establishment diatribes directly at Manning. “We want peace not war… FUCK CNN!” he boomed. Manning threw her fists in the air and cheered.
Afterwards, Manning lingered in the theater lobby, basking in a euphoric post-show afterglow. “If it wasn’t for KRS-One, there wouldn’t be Chelsea Manning,” she told me, beaming. Out of the blue, a sharply-dressed bald man with thick-framed glasses sidled up. It was Michael Stipe, and he wanted to know if she’d be interested in hanging out backstage. Eyes widening, Manning immediately accepted. We were ushered into KRS-One’s cramped dressing room, where we hover awkwardly in a surge of well-wishing friends, collaborators, and assistants.
His booming voice filled the room as he clapped a friend on the back and reminisced about the time he “rocked” Studio 54 for a grand total of 50 cents — back when he was first starting out and agreed to perform for whatever sum the promoter had in his pocket. Manning shot me a look as if to say: can you believe this? But when I offer to introduce her, she clutched my arm and shook her head. “Just let me be a fan,” she pleaded.
After they snapped a photo together — KRS-One still seemingly oblivious to who she is — we slipped out of the room and Manning stood in the empty hallway, visibly shaken. “A year ago I was in prison...” she said haltingly, red eyes welling up. She took a deep breath as tears slid down her pale cheeks. Then she repeated: “A year ago I was in prison, and now I’m here.”
We finally made our way out of the building, passing packs of buzzing festival-goers as we head back to her hotel. As we turned into the lobby, just before she got into the elevator, something on the street caught Manning’s eye. For a flicker of a second, Manning hesitated, as if tempted to head back into the night. She quickly rejected my suggestion that we go dancing, saying she needed to rest. Tomorrow, she’ll get back to fighting.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Manning was the first American prisoner to undergo gender-affirming surgery behind bars. She was the first American prisoner to undergo gender-affirming hormone therapy in a military prison.