Viewing entries in
Yesterday (April 28), Blitz the Ambassador released his second album for the Berlin-based label Jakarta Records. The release, Afropolitan Dreams, quickly feels like the Ghanaian rapper’s most centered piece. Beyond an eclectic mix of mostly African features, the album is built on Ghanaian high-life tendencies more than any boom-bap revisionism. Still, he trades American Hip Hop references with Accra-specific mentions as well as he ever has before and has an endearing way of slipping into and out of either continent’s slang. Now in his early 30’s, Blitz moved to New York City in 2001 as a teenager. Living in Brooklyn—and then Ohio for college before back to the borough—he built a career in the same place that many of his own Hip Hop idols rapped about on record twenty years ago.
He has an unpretentious penchant for interpolation, co-opting a Pete Rock & CL Smooth line for his own back-to-Africa sentiment or flipping a popular Sting lyric and melody into his own immigrant anthem. Speaking with Project Inkblot earlier this month, Blitz detailed the inspiration behind his latest album and broke down his relationship with New York as an African immigrant and Hip Hop artist/fan. He has an obvious humility in having made it this far but reserves a fierce sense of belonging.
“There’s a lot now that makes it possible for global voices to really participate in Hip Hop culture,” he says. “I’m biased to this of course because of my trajectory. As a fan growing up in Ghana and being a participant in the culture and having the opportunity to inform people. But when people try to narrow Hip Hop down to just American culture, I have to remind them that Caribbean immigrant culture is a huge part of Hip Hop. Puerto Rican immigrant culture is a huge part of b-boy and breakdance culture. You can’t ever forget that immigrants are the basis of Hip Hop. Now of course as years have gone by it’s American culture but the foundation of it is Kool Herc who is a Jamaican immigrant. So he’s me in a lot of ways. His experience outside of America shaped this culture.”
Can you talk about the African community that you encountered in New York when you arrived in 2001? When you first arrived, did you feel more alienated or embraced as an immigrant and as an African in New York specifically?
It was a bit of both. When you arrive in a place you want to kind of find your own way. You know that there’s a community here that they’re gonna support you when you need it but you also know that you can easily get kind of lost in that community and not experience anything outside of that community. So what I kind of did was a bit of both. I ended up being in Brooklyn which was out the norm for a Ghanaian because most of the Ghanaian community is in the Bronx. So what I would do every week is I’d go up to the Bronx at least once a week because a lot of people that I went to school with and the best restaurants were up there. So I’d go up there to make sure that I’m in touch and linked up but I stayed in Brooklyn so that I could still have some space to experience life outside just the Ghanaian community. And of course I went away to college as well in Ohio which helped create some of that gap but also kept me connected in a way. When you’re away that’s when the longing [starts].
Another thing I was thinking about is that for anybody interested in Hip Hop, regardless of whether or not you’re from this country or not, New York represents this sort of cultural mecca. It all emanates from the Bronx since we’re talking about that. What’s it like to call a place that you seem to have longed for for so long your home?
Yeah man. You know a lot of New York was lived vicariously before I came to New York. Of course there were certain things that I was a bit familiar with. A lot of it from my connection to Hip Hop and the way Hip Hop painted New York. Then some of it too was just experiential, so when I got here I was like, 'Wow, okay. It’s not like it is in the Wu-Tang record. It’s not like it is in the Biggie record.' There’s certain things that words couldn’t even explain what this place is. But I’ve always appreciated New York because it gave me an opportunity to compete and compete on a very high-level that being in any other metropolitan city—even in America—wouldn’t have never given me. To perform with some legends at such an early part of my career. I had opened for KRS-One. I had opened for Big Daddy Kane. I had opened for Rakim. I had opened for Public Enemy. Some of these were in front of thousands of people at places like Summerstage or Celebrate Brooklyn.
I was still in shock that here I am. A kid who had all these people on his wall in Ghana—the environment, you can’t even compare environments—then to be backstage with these people, to give’em a pound, to say, ‘Hey listen, you changed my life and here I am.’ I think that’s like one of the most powerful things that could ever happen to anybody with a dream. I think that that journey continues to play itself out in amazing ways. I’m still always in awe. I’m in awe at New York. I’m in awe at the culture of Hip Hop. I’m in awe of how full-circle all of this has come. I’m still kind of like pinching myself. Like ‘Wow.’ Like you said, a place that you wanted to call home forever you can call home but not just call it home but be adding to a very rich history of it in a major way. I don’t take that for granted. I’m very privileged.
Being in New York you’re always around Ghanaians and you’re always around Africans, but how has your perspective or emotional attachment to Ghana changed? I guess attached to that, what have you learned about Africa in New York?
Wow. I’ve learned a lot man. It’s very interesting. I’m realizing that there’s a reverse-longing that’s happening now. The longing that I had to come to America and to live in Brooklyn and to participate in Hip Hop culture and blah blah. I’m beginning to find that the reverse is happening. Now that I’ve lived over a decade in America and a majority of it in New York, I’m finding now that the same way that I was super curious about New York and how I wanted to know everything about it—I wanted to know the slang, I wanted to know what Hip Hop artist was coming out next month, I wanted to know what part of the country they were from, what borough they were from, I wanted to know what street they were talking about—I’m finding out that that the reverse is happening. Now that I live in America my curiosity for Africa has grown.
I’m beginning to have that same experience where I want to know what’s happening in Accra. I want to know what’s happening in Abidjan. I want to know who’s the next guy to come out of Nigeria. What street are they talking about? It’s almost a mindfuck when you think about how you long for something you get it, and then you’re like, ‘Oh shit, I’m longing for this other thing now just as equally as the other thing.’ That’s what’s happening to me now and it’s influencing my music greatly. It’s influencing the choices that I’m making. On this record I featured a plethora of artists, none of which were American-born or American Hip Hop artists. I would have never thought about it. Me coming up as an artist that would have been the first thing I would be looking for, ‘How can I get an American artist on my record?’ Specifically a cat from Brooklyn on my record. Now it’s like, I’m here, I’m part of it, I live it. Now I want to feature guys from Brazil, I want to feature singers from Nigeria, I want to feature rappers from Kenya. That’s what I’m curious about now. It’s interesting and I’m enjoying that bit now.
Maybe to them you’re that guy from Brooklyn.
Maybe to them I’m that guy from Brooklyn. It’s kind of crazy. That is fact. It’s a spiral. You don’t even know where you fit in all of that. You just know that it’s happening and you’re apart of it.
You’ve talked a lot about experiencing American Hip Hop as a young person in Ghana. What was it like for you to see groups like A Tribe Called Quest wearing dashikis and Africa pendants?
It was powerful. Having the word Zulu Nation [on] the coolest biggest shows. Seeing the red, black, green. Seeing the red, gold, green. Seeing the big medallions. You knew that they knew that you existed. You know what I mean? And that’s such an important part of existence in itself, when you look up to anything, when that thing acknowledges that you exist and acknowledges that you are an influence in shaping it. It makes you feel good. Of course we would have loved to touch, feel, to see that connection be more tangible, but I think that that’s what’s happening now. Even though we saw those medallions, even though we heard those shout-outs. It didn’t matter what the subject matter was. Matter fact there was a song that Pete Rock and Raekwon on Soul Survival 1 and I remember Raekwon going something random and he was like, “Puffing the marijuana / African gold from Ghana,” I was like, 'Boom, that’s my favorite record.' It made no sense, it wasn’t even like a real shout-out it just rhymed. But what was important to me at the time at least was that he knew Ghana existed. It felt good hearing somebody that you looked up to do that to you.
That’s kind of what I’ve realized that we’re bringing full circle. So we’re not only just like throwing Ghana in there as a rhyme, we’re talking about Accra city. So I’m imagining how people in Accra city feel everytime they hear me say that on a record that is played on whatever level that is big to them...I think the bridge is slowly coming together. It’s gonna take a lot of dialogue musically or [verbally].
Bringing it forward to what your album, what does the word ‘afropolitan’ mean to you?
To me what an Afropolitan represents is an African in a global context. There are many contexts in which an African can exist. You can be an African in an African context where the conversation is limited to your immediate environment. Then there is an African in the context that isn’t necessarily [the same] but you still have to navigate through it and find what still makes you African in that environment. I look at it from metropolises and how a metropolitan affects an African young or old. I’m not an anthropologist but I can examine the changes that have occurred in say African immigration to the West. So our parents immigrated, a lot of them fleeing from catastrophe that was happening post-independence and people had to be in exile and it was very shaky at the time. Then comes another wave that come for education. So their jobs are to figure out ways to fit in these new worlds. So they come, they are the best students ever. They’re doctors, they’re attorneys, they do well in that space but don’t really have goals of returning because they fled.
Then there’s this generation that’s coming up that isn’t really about fleeing, a lot of it is just about access and how can I gain more access so that I can go back? That’s a more urgent conversation that’s happening now. How do I go back? How do I return home? This is merely a path to try to go back with some access. Whether access means financial resource, intellectual resource, whatever resource, but you know that at home it’s challenging to gain that because you don’t have a footing. So a lot of us leave with that goal...I feel like it’s necessary that a lens is shined on this group. That’s why I called the record Afropolitan Dreams. It’s really a journey of arriving and returning and finding your place in that return. And finding what you can contribute in that return. That’s kind of what I feel defines at least my personal Afropolitan Dream.
Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Project Inkblot Jay has written for publications like HipHopDX, Redbull Music Academy, Bonafide Magazine, and more. Get in contact with or follow Jay on Twitter @jbal4_
Homeboy Sandman began his professional music career a little more than six years ago. After more than a year as a high-school teacher in New York City and then pursuing law at Hofstra, the Queens native picked up the mic full-time and self-released his debut Actual Factual Pterodactyl in 2008. In the five years since, he released a commercial debut in 2010 with The Good Sun, signed to the off-kilter, indie Stones Throw label the next year, and has consistently released music in the form of one-off tracks and cohesive EP’s. His first release of 2013, Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent, strikes a chord. It wasn’t just an outlier in Hip Hop, it was an obvious pinnacle for the emcee himself. It was his first full release—albeit a short one—with a single producer behind the boards, and it kicks off what will hopefully be a long run at the format. In September Homeboy Sandman dropped All That I Hold Dear as a follow-up, transferring the production duties from one long-time collaborator in El RTNC to another in M Slago (that later EP also showed off his sister’s painting skills on the cover art tip). This week we linked up with Boy Sand to talk a little about his music, but more so about his life and education, using his music as a tool to connect with children in the classroom, his earliest Hip Hop memories, and the current state of New York City politics and culture. The day we spoke (in the second week of October) more news of recent developments in the battle to preserve the Long Island graffiti destination5 Pointzhad come to light and we ended up circling back on the topic a couple times. If nothing else, the battle for 5 Pointz is a case-study on the ideologies and politics of Homeboy Sandman. He’s not ready to let go, and as he told me more than once, “this is our thing.”
You’ve been adamant about visiting and speaking in schools, what is it you try to bring to the classroom?
It depends. The last school I went to was in Washington Heights, they were working on creative writing. I was there under the auspice of talking about live performance or creative work. There was a lot of poetry and some kids were doing music as well. I really like to get in there and I like to just talk to kids about rap and coming up. I got so much to talk about with regard to the media, and how come the media is pushing this or that. Kids in the city, rappers are their number one role models, just straight up and down. It’s silly, it’s sad—you know rap, the people that determine what Hip Hop culture is, are determining what inner-city culture is, what youth culture is across the world. Kids wanna be rappers. That’s who they want to act like. It’s like “wow, this guy’s a rapper. This is the pinnacle of human life,” you know what I’m saying? This is unfortunately what a lot of these kids is thinking, so I’m able to get in there, I’m able to have more breakthroughs with the kids in an hour now that I’m rapping than I was able to in a whole year as a teacher—and you know, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is, when I was a teacher I would go in a class and say “damn all these kids running around trying to be rappers.” That was really one of the reasons I said, “I guess I’ll be a rapper, ‘cause you know that’s the only way to get these kids to listen.”
You’re signed to a record label and the landscape may be a little different for that reason, but your livelihood really comes from you. It always strikes me that there would be a lot of anxiety when someone’s depending on their art as a living, and it just doesn’t seem like you have that holding you back. Can you talk about that a little?
Yeah, I could speak on that. I mean, whose livelihood doesn’t come from them? I’m trying to think about the best way to answer that question. I mean first and foremost I believe in God, people got a bunch of words for God—the Universe, God, different religious names—I use the word God. I believe that I have responsibilities as a human being. I believe that I have a degree of choice and a degree of options, a degree of control, but I believe that the vast majority of control is out of my hands. I believe my responsibility and obligation is to the do the best I can, to try and be the best person I can be [and] make the best art I can make, be as honest as I can be, be a stand-up guy, try to be the things that I believe I’m supposed to be and that my father taught me I was supposed to do. It’s been reinforced to me time and time again that if you do the best you can, you’re gonna be okay. You know what I mean? What’s the sense in worrying, you can’t do any better than the best you can. If you do the best you can then you’ve already done what you’re supposed to do.
At the base of all that too is the fact that I know rap. I know music. When I was in [boarding school] I felt very much by myself. And Hip Hop music became, for me, home. I’d be like “these kids aren’t like me, I’m all by myself, I’m just gonna be under these headphones, this is how I’m gonna tap in.” So I spent an exorbitant amount of time just soaking in—I know what makes a fat rap record, I was always up on the cats that was fat. I recognize that I have a one-of-a-kind gift when it comes to rhymes. I recognize that the world is changing and focus changes, but the truth is, people that love to be impressed, that love to be inspired by music, that love one-of-a-kind music, are not going anywhere. Music that’s popularized may not be with them in mind anymore, there are kids out right now as talented as Stevie Wonder that are not getting put on because it’s not about putting on the most talent anymore. If Aretha Franklin came out right now they’d say “you sound good but you don’t have the right look.” If Aretha Franklin is out now, she’s gonna do fine if she puts in the work ‘cause there’s people that really want to hear [her] sing. And just like me—I’m gonna be in every single ear in the world, I see the end of my journey I just don’t see the path. But I know where I’m going. Right now, I’ve always recognized that I’m going to be okay because I have a one-of-a-kind gift, a one-of-a-kind talent.
I came up [and] I couldn’t wait to tell my homeboys, “yo, you hear this new Redman?” I was the first cat putting cats onto Broken Language when Smooth Da Hustler came out. And I was the man for that, and I recognize that that’s still around. There’s still people that wanna be like “yo, you heard this cat Homeboy Sandman? Listen to this.” They get social capital and clout from their friends ‘cause they were the first one to know about Homeboy Sandman. And those people aren’t going anywhere, people who love music and who love art are still here. So I just have to put in the work of getting to them and I’ll always be okay. I’ll always be fed, I’ll always be happy, and I’ll always be in control. I can’t really fail ‘cause my talent is real. The only thing I could do is lay back and get lazy, but I’m not gonna let that happen. So as long as I don’t let that happen and I have a real gift, it doesn’t even seem realistic to me that anything could go wrong.
You talk about your father and credit him with a lot and I know he’s not from this country. I wonder what his relationship with Hip Hop is like? I’m sure he rides for you but is there a disconnect generationally or with language?
My pop is from the Dominican Republic, he got to this country when he was in the fifth grade. And though he didn’t speak a lick of English, he grew up in Jamaica Queens. He was very much a Hip Hop kid, I don’t know how old he is now but he was coming up in New York when Hip Hop was coming up in New York. When Hip Hop was coming out, it was everybody that was in the city, in the hood, in the street, it was Black kids, Puerto Rican kids. It was New York, it was all New York. It wasn’t like he came to this country in his 30’s, he came of age in New York City and is very much a New Yorker. My first exposure to Hip Hop, the first Hip Hop memory I have is my father walking all around the house saying 'don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge.' That’s what he would say when I would start bugging out.
How do you reconcile what’s going on currently with Hip Hop? You look at 5 Pointz, there’s a lot of cultural artifacts that are kind of waning. Documenting early Hip Hop culture is not something that has really caught on in the mainstream. You named your record Kool Herc, can you speak a little bit on the importance of early Hip Hop culture?
I think that that removal of the past, which you talked about kids not knowing Kool Herc, I think that it’s purposeful. Hip Hop started off as a beautiful, beautiful thing, and I used to be the dude [that said] “Hip Hop started out with love, it was about peace” and it was actually Crazy Legs who set me straight. Crazy Legs was like “yo, let me hip you to something Boy Sand,” [he] obviously came up in it. And he said, “listen, half the cats that was creating Hip Hop was stick up kids, Hip Hop was never about all love.” There was cats about love that was making Hip Hop, there was cats that was robbing that was making Hip Hop. What it was always about, was talent. That’s what Hip Hop was about. ‘Cause cats didn’t have this, didn’t have that, didn’t have much to be proud of. But he was an athletic kid and he could be a b-boy. If you had the gift of gab you could be an emcee. If you had a little artistic talent you could be a graph writer. The elements of Hip Hop come from, are birthed from just talent and nothing else. You look at the deejays, we’re musicians but we don’t have instruments! We gonna have to take somebody else music and make that our instrument.
Hip Hop is born on talent is what you need. In a lot of ways you come to 2013 and the image of Hip Hop that’s perpetuated by many people is the complete opposite of that. It’s a very empowering thing and it’s a very weakening thing. But you have a child coming up thinking that Hip Hop is their culture, and thinking that their culture is all about you being cool because of what you have instead of realizing that their culture is all about you being cool because of who you are. It is a complete manipulation of all the real foundation and principles of Hip Hop music. Hip Hop music is all over the world. The essence of cool, these kids in the Bronx in the ‘70s, they captured the essence of cool for really what it was. And that’s why it’s been undeniable to people all over the world. And that’s a very powerful thing. That’s what I try to utilize it as.
I talk about it all the time, there’s people that are seeking to use Hip Hop to manipulate people, to sell a lot of product. I’ve talked about people filling prisons with Hip Hop, I’ve talked about Hip Hop artists being popularized way more to sell the product placement included in their records than anybody concerned with their talent. I’ve talked about the evil forces looking to kill this culture. And I think it’s very important that they make sure that nobody knows who Kool Herc is, that nobody knows who Crazy Legs is, make sure that nobody knows that when I grew up I heard all different types of rappers, some were killers and murderers, some were players, some were just cool dudes just chillin’, other dudes worked at the Mickey Dees. I think it’s very important for them to make it look like Hip Hop is about a person acting a certain way and is only cool because of the things they have.
An initial idea for this conversation was to talk about some of the books you’ve read recently, you mentioned The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander before we talked, can you speak on that book?
I think everybody should read that book—you know, you bring up 5 Pointz and people really need to stand up for themselves. Stand up for yourself. Everybody determines what sacrifice they’re gonna make. People think of the ultimate sacrifice as the fact that you might die for something. I personally think dying is way less of a sacrifice than being a punk your entire life. Out here on the streets of New York people are getting hands put on them. Didn’t we all learn as children that that’s not supposed to happen? That we’re not supposed to let people put hands on you? Here on the streets of New York and all over America people are getting enslaved. That’s what this is. How are you going to be against enslavement and allow yourself to be enslaved? You can’t be—it’s a lot to think about, but people should read that book because it pretty much sets straight what’s going on. I think there’s a good chance that anybody that reads that book will be convinced that Jim Crow is still alive in America in a different form, and that slavery is still alive in America in a different form. And hopefully, after that, they’ll feel like if it’s worth dying to change that, it’s worth dying.
Alright, last question. You’re a lifelong New Yorker, how do you feel about New York today? Obviously you grew up in Queens, but how do you see New York today as opposed to the New York you grew up in 20 years ago?
That’s a good question, man. I love New York like crazy and you know, for me, I did have the benefit of being able to leave as a youth. You know so many people never get a chance to leave and are like “yo, New York is driving me crazy” and they think that the grass is greener. I’m lucky that I have the perspective that I get to leave and come back, I think that’s one of the reasons that I love New York so much because I got to miss it so much as a teenager.
There is a battle going on in New York right now. 5 Pointz would be ours, my whole take on 5 Pointz—you know I was at some of the meetings, some of the city meetings, and I got up and said “this is silly because 5 Pointz is ours. Why are we even acting like we even need to come to this meeting?” We need only accept the fact that this is ours, the same that you feel the wallet in your back pocket is yours. If I went to go take it out would you call a meeting? Would you tell me not to do it? This is our thing.
I’m very sad about the 5 Pointz thing, it’s come up a few times today. And I’m really thinking, I was like “yo, I’m gonna be the first one there when the bulldozers come.” And I’m really thinking about if my responsibility is to go there and be there by myself, I don’t know, I haven’t made my decision yet. In New York City there’s a war going on right now between two different sides, there’s the side that thinks that money is everything. The people that think money is everything, they don’t really know what’s important, if they did they wouldn’t think money was everything. But there’s those people that think money is everything and they’re becoming really abundant, they’re all over the place. And there’s the people that don’t think that money is everything. And [those] people really need to answer the call, really need to decide how important some of this stuff is to them. I can’t remember a time where people were so much like “you know what, as long as I’m still alive I’ll let them take everything.” I don’t remember it being like that in New York City. I’ve seen it get worse and worse.
Things tie together, I think about police brutality. When I was a kid people knew there was police brutality but I couldn’t have imagined when I was a kid that one day a man would get shot 41 times—41 times, think about that number—and people wouldn’t do anything but yell and scream. I never thought that that could happen, but alas, when I was a teenager, Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times and that number seems crazy to me. But people said “dag I guess that’s messed up there’s nothing we could do about that.” And at the time I could have thought to myself, “dag, 41 times, at least they didn’t shoot’em 50 times. Fifty times, if someone got shot 50 times then we definitely would’ve done something besides go outside and yell.”
Sean Bell sure enough was shot, I was living on 148th and Hillside, Sean Bell was shot five blocks down the street on the eve of his wedding. Fifty times, [they] shot a human being 50 times, and the day that the verdict came out, there was extra cops on horses all over Jamaica Queens. And 50 is a crazy number, and if I said to you right now that if they’ll shoot a human being 200 times people wouldn’t do nothing, you would say to yourself “no way, no way, they can’t shoot a human being 200 times and us not do nothing,” but that’s where we’re going because [last] time it was 50 and after that it’ll be 70. Ten years from now they’ll shoot somebody 200 times. By then maybe we’ll all just be hiding in our houses because we didn’t go out and save 5 Pointz. Who really knows? But, right now in New York City we’re not stepping up to the plate, we’re a soft crew, one of the softest crews in history. It’s a shameful thing to be down with this soft ass crew that’s going on in New York right now.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter at @jbal4_
Years ago, I knew Stephanie Rooker as a ferocious vocalist who headed the soul outfit The Search Engine, but for the past few years, Stephanie has been training extensively in a healing modality involving music/sounds, aptly called sound healing. Just this month Stephanie launched Voice Journey Sound Center, a unique course of vocal training that uses the tenants of exploration and inner work to help students reach new vocal abilities, that in turn increases mental clarity, physical well-being, emotional strength, and other physical, physiological, and emotional benefits.
Stephanie met up with me for a quick meal in Soho, where she taught me simple sound healing techniques, and talked rather candidly about her experience negotiating her solo music career and her community based healing work through music, realizing that they are really not so disparate--in fact--they are both equally valid in her life's work. Stephanie uses her unique experience as a jazz/soul vocalist, her training in West African music and the many traditions of the African Diaspora, as well as her healing work to create something intimately hers, yet hugely accessible to all.
What exactly is sound healing? And how do you teach it to people?
Everything is vibrational. Sound healing, very broadly, is basically using vibration to change the state that you currently are in. It can be something as obvious as your breath rate, your heart rate, physical frequency, or your nervous system, and other vibrational parts of our existence: mental clarity, stress, tiredness. Low frequencies make people tired. High frequencies make people stimulated through their brain. If you are really tired, and you go as high with your voice as you can, your brain will wake up, and you shift in your vibration. You can call that sound healing.
You can open up your listening. You filter out a lot of listening a lot of the time, and you shut a lot out. If you just open up your listening and take in everything that you hear, it’s really an amazing and stimulating practice. It’s like opening your awareness, or like putting on glasses. Suddenly you see things clearer. Basically, sound healing is that in any way that you can think about. There’s sort of a constructed new-age idea of sound healing that it has to be chanting, kirtans, etc, but really it’s very broad.
Your new organization is called the Voice Journey Sound Center. Tell me about the voice.
For me, it’s all about the voice, because the voice is inside of you. Unlike other instruments that you see externally, the voice vibrates within you, so it has a much more direct effect on our physiology, your brain, everything. So, how do you teach that? There are a billion different ways. There are a lot of different traditions.
Indigenous traditions have been doing this forever. Pretty much in every indigenous tradition, there is some element of sound healing, connecting to spiritual or healing practices. There are a lot of places to draw from. And even in just music—if you think about avant-garde improvisational vocal jazz type stuff, it’s about making sounds in creative ways, and breaks all of your perceptions about what it is that you’re supposed to do, or what’s within a paradigm.
For me, Voice Journey is about connecting to your voice in a new way so that you can use your voice in an expanded context, whether that’s singing higher, or improving our tuning or your pitch. It is also, maybe more so, seeing where the voice can take you: How your voice can shift your state of consciousness, how your voice can shift your mood, how your voice can effect your physical body. That’s the real crux of it for me. The former part almost comes as a result to the latter part. You can practice scales and techniques and exercise. Sure your voice can get better because you’re practicing, but to get to the other place of where the voice can take you, surrendering to whatever it wants to do, that’s where most people have their issues, because they get in their own way.
The truth is the voice can do so many more things that we could ever imagine if you just let the voice do what it does. So often we feel like we have to do it. It goes back to the whole ownership of work thing. Am I doing this to me, or am I just making sure I’m as out of the way as possible, so that I can fully experience this process.
"For me, Voice Journey is about connecting to your voice in a new way so that you can use your voice in an expanded context, whether that’s singing higher, or improving our tuning or your pitch. It is also, maybe more so, seeing where the voice can take you: How your voice can shift your state of consciousness, how your voice can shift your mood, how your voice can effect your physical body."
What is your process with your students?
It’s different for everyone. It depends on what they want and where they’re coming from. I always start with a humming practice. That sort of puts us in the present moment, vibrationally. Sometimes we work on music. I have some students who want to work on songwriting. Some students think they are not singers and they want to be, so we do more work to help them truly experience their voice.
A lot of my students really want to incorporate their voice within their spiritual path, or their meditation practice, and so we work on that. We work on meditative practices that work for them, and put them in a place of a meditative mind state. Some people have to learn how to just have fun with their voice, and not think it’s a serious. Sometimes I just play with people, and play different games to get people into the creative process of just singing. It’s really fun. It’s the best teaching I’ve ever done. I’ve done traditional voice lessons, which in comparison is very surface level.
Teaching sound healing seems like a very different experience than being a performer.
I believe that I’m supposed to do this work, but the interesting thing about it is that it’s very humbling. It’s not like, “I’m Stephanie Rooker, and I do blah blah blah.” In this work, there’s a sense that I’m not really doing the work—that I’m facilitating the space, and that music is doing the work. There’s an interesting paradigm where—this is my work—but I also feel like I have a respectful distance from identifying too much with it, because I don’t feel like it’s me doing it. Does that make sense?
In you giving credit to "the music" and not yourself in this process, do you think that has to do with gender, and women historically and socially deflecting attention away from themselves?
I think because I connect very spiritually with what I’m doing, it goes in and out of having it be ego. That fluctuates from, “oh, it’s just little me over here doing this work,” to “I’m over here holding this space, using all of the skills and knowledge that I’ve gotten up to this point,” owning that, but not taking it to the next level. The other side of the ego says, “look how awesome I am. I made these people do all of this. I made them use their voice.” I’m not interested in that, but it’s interesting how that pendulum works. My teacher has really helped me a lot with that, Silvia Nakkach from California. I’m now getting certified in her Yoga of the Voice training. She’s a huge force. She has all of these phrases that she uses, silly isms, and one is “I’m innocent.”
I feel like, I am just doing what I’m meant to do. It’s less about Stephanie Rooker, which was me doing everything for me, about me, even though my music wasn’t about that. I was hustling gigs, I was trying to get press, it was all Stephanie Rooker. At a point I just felt like it was whack. There was also the business side that took over the art. I felt like a total poser, like, “I’m the shit, come pay me money to see me play.” Meanwhile I hadn’t practiced in weeks, because I was emailing everyone and freaking out about getting people to my shows.
Does that mean that your solo performing career is being pushed to the side?
I’m putting it aside for now, as far as the energy that I’ve been putting into it. I’m not putting any energy or time into booking gigs. Sometime ago, I was talking to one of my mentors right before the tipping point moving forward with Voice Journey— which wasn’t even Voice Journey at the time—but just this idea. Then I was dealing with this performer identity that I was struggling with, and which just clung to me. I talked to her about it. She said, “It sounds like the light is shining on that voice healing work for you. You’re never going to NOT be a performer. You’re always going to be a performer. When you have children, your newborn child takes priority, because it will not survive without you tending to it.” At that point I had been singing for 8 years or so. She said, “Your 8 year old can take care of itself. It can go make a sandwich. It can do those things. You’re not abandoning it, or kicking it to the curb.” So that was a really huge point for me, and it was very painful. It was super super hard to even pull away that little bit from my performance identity.
What was that like?
It was like a breakup with myself. Literally. I went through most of the emotions of a hardcore breakup, with bathtub crying with wine—the whole deal—and listening to my music. But you know what? I know it’s not over. I keep getting asked to perform. People keep asking me to perform with them, and to do projects or record. It’s just awesome. Every chance someone offers me an opportunity to sing, I’m like, yes! I’m taking this as a sign from the universe that I should never forget about that part of me.
"It was like a breakup with myself. Literally. I went through most of the emotions of a hardcore breakup, with bathtub crying with wine—the whole deal—and listening to my music. But you know what? I know it’s not over. I keep getting asked to perform."
Sometimes we want what we want, when we want it, and we are impatient for success. There is always a gestation period, that we as a society seem to forget.
Yeah. But I have to say, the whole transition with music and performing was a huge process in itself. I released “The Only Way Out Is In”, and was working with a publicist, and doing all of these things, and nothing was popping. Even my publicist was like, “I don’t want you to pay me. I really believe in your music. We’re going to get you something awesome, and then you can pay me.” And I was like “great!” Meanwhile I was enrolled in the Sound Healing Institute, and dealt with that creative bruise, of: I really poured my soul into this project, and it’s not catching. But I feel like if I hadn’t gone through that I process, I would not be where I am right now.
Now I feel like, that had to happen. Like I said, even in my music, I’ve always been about this. Also, awakening to all of the elements of sound healing has changed how I think about performing and how I think about music.
After the release of my record, I played a couple of gigs with my band. It wasn’t like I just said “oh the album sucks.” The album didn’t suck. I loved the album. It’s one of my proudest things, but it didn’t achieve anything externally for me. We did a couple of gigs, but I was realizing that I was shifting to a new place with how I was feeling music, and not everybody in the band could get that. I was feeling very much like I was running new software on an old operating system. You know what I mean? That’s why I was even more about chilling from performing. I was noticing a transformation with music, and I didn’t want to just plug into the old ways, because it wasn’t going to work.
I think when you said “gestation period,” I think that was part of it too. I got through that transition of what I think music is now, and I got an expanding context. It was a really intense period.
You have a blues workshop coming up this week. Can you tell me a bit about that?
If there’s healing music, the blues is it. There’s such a mystery and lineage of it, the healing elements are just so obvious to me, you know what I mean? Having studied West African music and music of the Diaspora, you see all of those elements in it. At Oberlin I took a blues improv class, which was a turning point for me. The teacher, Adenike Sharpley—she was amazing, and I loved her—but she’s not necessarily easy to love. You either love her or hate her, because no one is entitled in her world. You have to work. If you are not doing the work—Just no. I immediately saw her as a teacher, and was willing to do whatever I had to do to study with her, and it wasn’t about having her like me. I just knew she was for real. That class really talked about elements about the cultural evolution of slavery and how that came out in the elements of the blues, and spirituals, field shouts. That’s been something that I’ve been checking out for a long time. I gave a workshop on this at my teacher’s retreat in Santa Cruz, California, and it was amazing. People loved it.
This is my demographic right? People who are so-called new agey and spiritual, who love to sing, but for whom there's somehow a cultural chasm that isn’t being bridged. I offered the blues class, and everyone loved it so much, they demanded that it be offered again the very next day. I think it really helped people to connect with those elements, but also in that context of blues as a lineage leading up to today.
I have also taught hip-hop workshops. For both, it’s just pulling out the elements: What are the elements of the music that work on us? What makes us love it? What about it makes us cry? Why are we crying? Or why are we laughing? And what is the function of these techniques, and the intense sensuality? It’s a release. All of it is a release. It’s bringing the context and lineage to the present day, and allowing people to really understand them and voice them themselves, but also with respect of the culture that it came from, and respect the culture that is still suffering today from the same shit. It’s very emotive. People really need a release more than they would ever know or admit. There are some awesome singers that are going to be there, but it’s not about awesome singers [laughter]. It’s about drawing those tools out so that people can use them, not in an appropriating way, but in a healing way. That was the thing that I was afraid of with a woman who commented on the events page for this upcoming workshop. In essence, she was asking, “who are you, white girl? Yeah, sure, teach us about the blues? What do you know about it?” I got to a place where I realized (with my husband's help) that I didn't need to defend myself, but that I do want to stand for how needed I believe this work to be & replied thusly.
I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’ve been challenged similarly about the whole sound healing thing by music therapists. It’s like, “what are you doing? You’re not a music therapist. You better know that you’re not a music therapist. Be clear that you’re not saying music or therapy in any of your work.” I’m like, I know. I’m just saying that there are elements of this that can be accessible to a whole lot of people, and if a lot of people are using these tools and are aware of where they come from and what they mean, there is huge healing that can happen, and huge transformations can take place.
Check out Voice Journey on Facebook, and check out the blues workshop on the 26th.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Rockin' her signature killer style, a huge grin and natural talent, Kalae Nouveau (formerly Kalae AllDay) is a vocalist, rapper, actress and the creator of Fem'Fatale, an ongoing meet-up initially created to gather women artists in various genres to share, connect, inspire and create real relationships. Tired of what she viewed as the divide among women artists and spurred to create a community after meeting various female mentors and supporters, Fem'Fatale has been running ever since. Kalae has recently recommitted to reinvigorating the community; from spicing up the web presence to thinking up creative ways to bring folks together - be it via film screenings or working with domestic abuse survivors.
I first met Kalae at a Fem'Fatale get together in Brooklyn and was impressed by her warmth, ease, and her genuine desire to bring people together. I also remember the good vibes of the women who attended; graphic designers, vocalists, editors - it was my first introduction to these group of creative ladies; not only did I dig their talent, I dug their willingness to support one another. Project Inkblot chatted with Kalae over hummus and some bomb-ass eggplant dish in Harlem one rainy afternoon on her process as a creative artist and performer, starting Fem'Fatale, the problem with yes men and why getting your ass kicked makes you stronger.
Let’s talk about Fem'Fatale. That’s where we met and I loved the vibe and the experience. Why did you start the group?
Growing up I found it hard to relate to most people. I was always excluded, teased and picked on. I was very different looking, including being very tall. I wasn't really accepted until I got into the art circle. I was meeting women who were so real, nice and creative. I felt like I found my tribe. I thought, how do I get these women together? I have always struggled with- and I am almost sorry for saying this - but ‘normal chicks.’ People who are ok with normalcy. Maybe I am more adjusted, but as a teenager I couldn’t connect.
I really loved the women I met through being a hip hop artist. So I started to get their contacts. At the time I had this two bedroom apartment on the upper west side and a lot of people could come and hang out. I wasn’t savvy yet on getting a venue, that came later.
What was your vision for Fem'Fatale then and is it the same now?
My vision then was to get these talented women together so we could network a bit, share and learn from each other. The vision has changed - before, all the women who came were artists but now it’s more about sisterhood and community so we may have business women etc. Now, the vision is to have a stronger internet presence.
The second year of Fem'Fatale was harder. It was the first winter and people didn’t want to go out as much. I brought it to Brooklyn and had another woman host it, we also went to the Bronx. Because of my childhood and what I considered to be rejection, when I invite a bunch of women who I admire to an event and they don’t come, it’s so heartbreaking on so many levels. I started to get really discouraged and almost started to feel resentful, like why are my sisters not cooperating? One of my friends said, are you really doing this for them or is it for yourself? And I thought about that - what does it mean to do something good for people and what it means to do something good for yourself. And what I realized was you should always do things that are good for yourself and if it benefits others then that’s great. Yes, I am doing it for myself and I am also doing it for them and I am not going to feel bad about wanting that. It feeds me in a really amazing way and what I see in the future is having Fem'Fatale groups that are not always run by me. Perhaps having Fem'Fatale groups in different cities.
Can you talk about some of the work you've done in women's shelters? What was it important for you to integrate this type of outreach into Fem'Fatale?
We went to shelters for women who have been domestically abused and done [creative] work with the women there and have had them bring their children. A lovely friend of mine Gianna Leo Falcon does a lot of social work and put Fem'Fatale in contact with this women's shelter on the upper west side. I felt like the magic that was happening between the artists in Fem'Fatale was so enriching and enlightening that it should be shared through community work with females that normally wouldn't have access to this sort of thing. It's Fem'Fatales community outreach. I want to incorporate it and other work, like youth outreach, more into the Fem'Fatale regular rotation. I feel like I need to give back to my community but it has to be something I am passionate about.
The mission is to create sisterhood. Simple and plain. The members really enjoy the relief of being around powerful opinionated women with out the masculine divine presence. It really liberates the divine feminine out of conditioned entrapment and forces women to recognize the value in their and their sisters' ideas, opinions, etc and through that I hope to inspire connection, self-worth and most importantly SISTERHOOD. As soon as women recognize the importance of being surrounded by other women, the cattiness and the belief that there can only be one spot/one token woman, will subside.
You’re a native New Yorker; how has NYC contributed to who you artistically?
New York is so diverse. It’s hard to not have a global sprit. I was always surrounded by different people, ethnicities, languages. You know, for a lot of people, you don’t get to eat sushi when you’re nine. The urban culture, the diversity, the fact that we’re so densely packed together. There’s this sense of limit and limitlessness a lot of the time.
When did you get into music?
I believe I came out of the womb singing, since I was four I was singing and since I was seven I was writing my own music. In New York, when you grow up, you're exposed to so much art. Sometimes people are only exposed to a certain type of art but I was exposed to a variety of artists: Sined O’ Conner, Dorris Day, Barbara Streisand…I had no idea that I was ever going to bea rapper. People assume that I am a singer but are usually surprised that I’m a rapper. At sixteen, most of the hip-hop I got was from the radio and I didn’t like it.
What didn't you like?
I couldn't relate. The oppression of women, getting money…there was nothing about that that resonated with me as a human being. Not just hip-hop, but pop music, too. I started to get into what would be considered “conscious rap” like Black Thought, Mos Def, Common. My nephew rapped and he was five years older than me. I was sixteen and I wrote a rap because my nephew was recording onto a cassette tape. I went back to him and said, ‘listen to my rap’ and he was like, ‘that was fucking horrible’ [laughs] so I never tried to rap again until some other people started encouraging me, around nineteen.
What are the differences between rapping and singing for you, as a performer?
Rapping is like talking. There’s so much you can do with it that is outside of getting my diaphragm ready…all of the technical aspects of singing I can throw out the door. I can do so much more. So, the performer part of me is more expressed when I rap. I can do a lot of expression and emotion in singing but it’s more subtle. Rapping is more in your face, energetic, crazy. It’s really fun.
Are you currently working on an album right now?
I’m not working on an album right now but I am working on the film score and shooting a movie for a film called Good Funk. It’s been ten years since I have acted but it’s performance, and it’s art. I think performance art is all the same. What makes the movie special is where the paths intertwine. There are four main charters and about six stories and it’s a commentary on what’s happening in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and what’s happening in this neighborhood. It's very touching and I think it’s one of those stories that everyone can relate to. It’s kinda like you’re thrown into this moment of time. I love to perform. What I prefer is not one over the another but the moment in time when I am performing over the moments in time when I’m not. I’m not opposed to those other moments like being in the studio or recording but the moment I hit the stage is like magic, it’s like all of the other moments were for this.
My favorite part is performing but I know for some people their favorite part is writing. There are times I write because I have to, because I am working on a project and there are times when inspiration hits and these are the times where it’s magical and spiritual. And that doesn’t happen all of the time especially when you’re doing this full time. There’s a lot to be inspired by in New York City so I always say with input there’s output. If I am doing a lot of output and no input, it can be tedious. I also find the hours of two to four in the morning to be so inspirational. Almost tike clockwork, inspiration hits.
As an artist what are some of the challenges?
At some point I just had to be ok with not being like everyone else. I remember a promoter once told me, ‘I know you rap but I don’t know where to place you’ and I thought, don’t say that like it’s a negative. Most of my recorded music is my manifestation of myself as a rapper but not as a performer. Even when I try to fit in, I can’t do it. It’s hard for me as a person in development. It’s very easy for me to do lots of different kinds of arts. I draw, paint, sing, rap, act…so trying to contain myself for the benefit of myself is an arduous task. I know in my heart I want to be a singer but I can’t spread myself too thin. I think I did and I broke and I have been trying to put myself back together. I now feel like I have a foundation to stand on.
One of my complexes is the 'yes men' complex. I think it’s important for people to tell the truth and to not always be so impressed with the people you're around who are artists. I’m not that impressed with my own stuff so when I am around people who are, it makes me feel like, ok are you lying to me or are you so consumed with the sparkly aspects that you can’t judge where the dull parts are?
What I learned is that I need to decide that for myself. And that has been a huge part of my process. If someone tells me yes or no, you cannot let your ego be affected but it's challenging, especially as an artist, you want people to like your shit! It feels so good when they do and I am trying to disassociate my ego from that. Every time I feel like I fail, I become more pliable. My jump back is quicker. The first time is tragic, your poor little soul! The second time is like, that hurts. But the third time you’re like I can do this. I came back before twice.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Hailing from Oakland, California, Jennah Bell's stripped down and raw sound, her thoughtful lyricism, and unique fashion sensibility are hard to place. A hint of a distantly distilled deep south twang in her guitar strumming, carries her hardened lyrics through a sweet throat. The honeyed voice, coupled with saddened melodies and melancholic lyrics, will be certain to kill you softly. I was engrossed with her "Live at Mother NY" album that Okayplayer put out earlier this year, and replayed song after song the same way that I plucked through each track on Joni Mitchell's Blue back in high school, wholly ingesting each word and note. Similarly, Ms. Bell's album breaks the monotony of internet singles, and breaking news, and gives listeners a certain stillness that we didn't even know we yearned.
I met up with Jennah Bell at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe to pick through some classics (her preferred reading), and some old records. With our resident photographer Seher Sikandar there to hang and also document, Jennah told us about her newfound collaborators, Charly & Margaux--the violin + viola duo who we featured a few months ago--who are her busking partners. She also expressed to us her feelings about being categorized as a folk artist, the categorization of music and human identities in general, and the need for visceral music.
You are such a thoughtful and deliberate storyteller. Do you ever fear being so vulnerable or exposed?
Yes. But I feel like when--maybe this is just me, but when you find what you love, what you really love, and you make an investment towards it, there's always an initial fear that you're going to be vulnerable, because you're going to have to work towards it in a way that you've never worked on anything before. And I think the nature of what I'm trying to do puts the writing as more public than for a lot of writers. It doesn't have to be this way. I've made it a conscious choice to expose myself, and that's scary because I feel like my personality is the antithesis of that. I'm very introverted most of the time. I like being by myself, I play well by myself, but I think that's where it balances out. I can get up there, and I can be vulnerable, and I can be quiet for a very long time too. I think that if I couldn't do that, I would be making even more of a risk of exposing my feelings in such an obvious sort of way.
What do you think the reward is?
I get to listen to myself talk, but much later, like listening to a conversation you had ten years ago, where at the time, you try to be conscious of what you are saying, but you can't hear what's coming out of your mouth. I go back and listen to songs that I wrote even five years ago, two years ago, and I can listen to where I was, and that's as invaluable as a human being trying to grow, and I think that listeners experience the same thing. You identify with a song because you know how it feels, and that same song—especially with songs that you listen to over the years—the meanings change, so you might be in that same place in a different way. Songs are just markers of growth, and I think it benefits everybody to know where they are. Since I made my passion communication, I feel like I'm able to help people to know where they are. That's a great feeling.
Regardless of your personal preference of music, you’re of the hip-hop generation. How does that identifier play into your work?
It's funny because I've been doing a “Big Poppa” [Notorious B.I.G.] cover at shows. I think that throws people off, because they're like, “you don't make music like that,” but it's the very same thing that you're saying. I'm of the hip-hop generation, and I grew up during The Blueprint [Jay-Z] era. It's very relative to how I think about rhythm and lyrics. I had a friend ask me, “how do you get better at timing in music?” I told her to take her favorite rap lyrics and learn it word for word, rhythm for rhythm, until it's not a thing and you don't think of it twice. And mine was “Big Poppa”, so I learned it word for word, rhythm for rhythm. It's like Dave Chappell who learned that Thelonius Monk song because it's relative to comedic timing.
Tell me about busking. Many people are spectators or witnesses of busking, but most people don’t understand that side of it from the perspective of the performer.
From the spectator, everyone wants to know about something, everybody wants to be a connoisseur. People like to speak from a place of knowing. So when they see me on the subway, all of a sudden they are like, "I know music. I saw Carrie Underwood on American Idol. She sings country. This girl sings country, so therefore I'm qualified to be a judge." It takes them 30 seconds to decide whether or not they are not going to tip based off of what you are singing, how you are singing, and where you are standing. These are all the very intricate parts of being a subway or street musician. It's really crazy.
Sounds like there’s a science to it.
In the morning—the people on their way to work—they don't want to hear anything too abrasive or too much talking. Charly does really well in the morning, because it's the violin—it's all very soothing. For the masses who are transitioning from waking up in the morning to going to work, voice is less conducive to that environment then being a violinist. That's when we play more instrumental stuff. I would say that in the afternoon we do better if I'm singing, and singing top 40s at that. How long have you been playing with Charly & Margaux?
For a few months now. I did it a couple of times on my own with my guitar, but I also don't have the kind of voice where I belt. Well, I can belt, but I don't really like doing it. Once you start doing it, you loose the kind of sensitivity of your talking voice. Your talking voice is at a register where you don't have to use your diaphragm, so when I'm singing in the train station, I have to become a different singer. I don't always like to get my Whitney Houston on, but you have to sing ballads or people don't get it. It's much harder to attempt to do a Joni Mitchell song at the train station than it is to sing Kelly Clarkson. I think it has a lot to do with what people “know” about vocalists from shows like American Idol and X-Factor as I mentioned before.
In our interview with Charly and Margaux, they mentioned that a passerby once said “black and so talented?” as though it was unheard of for two black women to play so well, and to play classical music at that.
You know what's sad about that? At least they said it. For instance, if you are at 59th street or above, like the Upper West Side, people give you a dollar without even listening to anything, and you can almost tell what it is out of. At least someone had the balls to walk by and say, "hi, I'm ignorant," rather than put a dollar and be like, "ah black girl playing the violin,” or “another black girl who sounds really folky." Music is still segregated like that, and black people still "can't play folk" and that's just what it is. There are still gates on those kinds of things, so it’s still crazy to people who wonder how I can play “that kind of music.”
Do you ever get the sense that people are more excited with your music because of the seeming novelty of you being a 'black girl playing folk'?
I think I confuse people most of the time. I think people like being confused. I think anything that's not inside the realm of “I know what's about to happen”, just gets people excited. And I don’t mean that I am consciously thinking, I'm black and I like folk music and country to be different.” I grew up in an environment where all of those things were accessible. A lot of times, people don't play that music because it's not accessible. Oakland is very different than a lot of places and cities in the world.
What do you mean by that?
You can go get Thai food from the Thai temple and be from the block—like straight from the block. There’s an accessibility in the way that Oakland is set up—it's just different. I grew up in a Muslim household, and went to a French Catholic school, but had mostly Jewish friends. To me, I never thought about that until I tell it to someone else, then I think to myself, what kind of environment did I actually grow up in? Who were my friends? Was it relative to an economic background? Most of it was economics actually. I didn't think about how different the Bay Area was until I moved. When did you move?
When I was 17, and then I moved to Boston, and it became very apparent that everywhere else was very different.
What brought you to Boston?
I went to Berklee College of Music.
You said earlier that people like to be confused or challenged. Right now popular music is pretty predictable and void of real risk taking. What do people actually want?
I think people do like a sense of mystery and being confused. I think at the same time, everything has its place. I don't reject music or popular culture, because it's just as relative and useful as anything else. I just think that when things are off balanced, that's when things that are left-to-center, end up coming out more to the forefront, so a lot of what I’m talking about is timing. For me it's a good time for me to do what I'm doing, not because it's so different, but because things have been one way for so long, it seems so different to everybody, but when you think about it, Richie Havens was doing this back in the 60s. I'm not really doing anything new. I study people who I admire, and try to move in that vein, but it's a lot of timing. It took three or four people before Joni Mitchell for Joni Mitchell to sound like she did, because she was ready, and time was conducive to her. Right now, people have been dancing for the last twelve years in the club, and people are tired--naturally. It's going to be a little less dancy for a while, or a little more still and reflective. I love pop music, but frankly, every time I turn the station, it's the same song over and over and over and over again, and I think no matter how resilient you are, and no matter how much you like to dance, you still need to grab a cup of water. Do you consider yourself a folk musician?
No. I don't consider myself much of anything. But I do know that folk has apparent acknowledgment of lyrics—acknowledging the writing aspect of music—and I say ‘folk’ in terms of these things. In that respect, I do think about what I am writing and that side of music, but that's as much as I think about it.
I ask this because I have no idea, but what exactly is soul music? Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, gospel is the soul of the church, jazz is the soul of the so-called "sinners". It's no different, it's just people talking about where they are from. I have an interest in where people are from so I sing all kinds of music. The problem with categorizations is like this: Corinne Bailey Rae, when she came out, she was the comparison to Tracy Chapman. After Corinne, there's Michael Kiwanuka, who's the comparison to Richie Havens (he's black and he plays guitar). And then Lianne la Havas came out, and now she's the new comparison to Corinne Bailey Rae, who's the comparison to Tracy Chapman. But what nobody thinks about, is that to take race out of that, it all becomes very very different, and then nobody is anybody except for just doing what they love. I have been told, “you're like Adele, but black." I'm like, what does that mean? That sounds like a pseudo compliment about your individuality.
Or in some cases it means you're very particular. You are set apart from “others like you”, which is even more offensive because, like I said of the whole folk music implication, it requires a whole consciousness of literature or of education. People are like "oh you're educated," like that’s something otherwise unheard of. I don't think our generation has much to say about folk music. Either you think of Appalachia--or like you mentioned before--Joni Mitchell. Those are two extreme sides of the spectrum.
Right, they are so different. If you want to make real comparisons, you would have to know a whole lot more about music, and I don't think people have as much an investment as musicians do. When I hear certain artists, like Lianne la Havas’ record and "Elusive" came on, I was just like, that's a cover of a Scott Matthews song, which I loved. His fingerprints are all over a lot of her records. You have artists of different races and different genres doing covers of each other’s work all of the time in music. What kills me is when people see me with natural hair, and they know that Solange has natural hair, so they assume that our music is just alike on that alone. I’m just like, I don’t know what you are talking about--
I don’t think they do either—
--It just comes out. It's just diarrhea of the mouth. I get this a lot from folks in the train stations, "I have this youth organization, and you can come in and just like ummmph ummmmmph" [riotous laughter]. I mean, I rarely do any ummmph ummmmmphing, but I might be able to help [shrugs]. For some reason it's always youth organizations with "minorities" or "underprivileged youth" involved, because they assume I’m underprivileged. At the end of the day, it's all some big ignorant misunderstanding.
If you want to know my story, ask me. Don't assume anything. Sounds like an interesting social experiment in the least.
Back to the earlier topic on soul music, is the only necessary requisite authenticity?
The writer in me wants to say something really corny right now. Soul music for me is when I am the least happy. When I am so reckless with my feelings that there is no filter, and most of the time when you are blissfully depressed is when you can't decide what to say. It usually shows in your face, or in your posture, or body. I've often written from those places, and haven't been able to help that I felt that way. There is no analytical aspect of my writing when I'm sad. It's just—I'm sad—and this is what's coming out. That's where my soul is the most raw. I think for soul music on a wider case or spectrum, Gospel is soul music. It's written out of passion, I should say. I have a passion for passion. When I say Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, every culture has been impoverished in some way—whether you're working in the mines, or in the mountains, and songs are written out of that—a lot of it is written in deprivation and a massive sort of cultural sadness. I guess that's the way that I think of soul. It's a reflection of a spectrum from the bottom to the top. If you hear Ralph Stanley's "O Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), all of the music are from traditional mountain hymns that fiddle players play. If you hear that song, regardless of whatever kind of music you like, you're just feel it viscerally. It's got a grip on some very deep sentiment of interpersonal or massive sadness. I don't know why people understand sadness more than they can understand happiness, but I don't really relate to happy music all the time, because it's a bit more worked on. Happiness is something that you work towards, so when lots of songwriters say they can't write when they are happy, I understand that.
words by Boyuan Gao
I was first put on to the Beat Making Lab through a friend of mine who thought I would find the project interesting. She was right. I was energized, inspired, and straight up wowed by the work professor and musician Pierce Freelon and his partner, co-teacher and producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) had created.
Founded by Apple Juice Kid and Dr. Mark Katz at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and described as an "electronic music studio small enough to fit in a backpack" Beat Making Lab was first designed as a course for its students to learn the art of beat making. After Pierce took over for Dr. Mark Katz, he and Apple Juice Kid realized their curriculum had the potential to have a global impact. Through a crowd funding campaign, Beat Making Lab set off for Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo working with youth in community settings to teach them how to make beats and songs.
Currently in collaboration with PBS, episodes are aired every Wednesday and detail the adventures in beat making as youth from Panama to Senegal to Fiji co-create songs using beat making technology as taught by Pierce and Apple Juice Kid. The results are beautifully shot and transportive episodes, dope beats, a real sense of community, and what looks like a whole lotta hard work and fun.
How did you come up with the idea for the lab?
The Lab started as a class at the University of North Carolina where I've been teaching in the department of African and Afro American Studies since 2009. Over in the Music Department, Dr. Mark Katz (who is currently the chair of the department) and producer Apple Juice Kid founded the class as a 3-credit hour music and technology course in the Fall of 2011. Dr. Katz went on leave the following semester and he and Apple Juice asked me to co-teach the class instead. That's when the seed was planted for Beat Making Lab to grow into something bigger.
On a daily basis, Apple Juice Kid and I discussed the possibilities of taking the class and the curriculum off campus and into a community. We were in the midst of planning to build a community studio when our colleague in the department, Dr. Cherie Rivers Ndaliko, told us about an amazing community center in Democratic Republic of Congo. We had initially thought about building our community Lab locally, in Durham or Chapel Hill, but were intrigued by the prospect of taking the grassroots initiative abroad. There was no money to pay for the experiment, so AJK and I crowd-sourced funds through an Indiegogo campaign, with donations from the Department and the community. Once we hit the ground in Congo - we knew we'd started something that wasn't going to end anytime soon.
Why was this idea important to you? What impact were you hoping to make?
In the beginning, we didn't know what impact we were going to make. Check out our fundraising video. We called it "Carolina to Congo: a beat making lab experiment" because we literally didn't know what to expect. We knew that we had a wonderful resource and curriculum; and we knew we had a community that really wanted to learn how to make beats. Music is a great tool for dialogue, healing, expression and building community. I hope we were able to do some of that.
What has the process been like building the Beat Making Lab? What have been some of your challenges and successes?
Challenges have included cultural sensitivities around sampling, logistics of organizing large groups of students for 2-week sessions, language barriers and political conflicts in some of the countries we've worked. The experience has been humbling. In the past 6 months I've worked with students in five countries I've never been to before. I'm learning Swahili, Wolof, Spanish and French; and making beats with radically different demographics, from groups of all-women rappers, and traditional Fijian musicians. The process has been challenging, inspiring, fun and exhausting.
What similarities and differences do you notice from teaching students at Chapel Hill to students in the DRC or other areas you’ve traveled to? Are there cultural differences to learning these new skills?
Every group brings its own nuance to the table. In Congo, we were surrounded by rappers. It seemed like everyone could spit in several different languages and dialects. Our song Cho Cho Cho features emceeing and singing in English, Swahili, French and a fusion of the three. Panama, on the other hand, was very different. Many of our students were percussion players, and part of a live carnival band called Barrio Fino. They brought a different atheistic, skill-set and approach to beat making. In Senegal we were working with an all women's ensemble of rappers, singers and producers called GOTAL. Unlike previous groups, they all knew each-other years before the actual workshop - so communication and collaboration was a walk in the park. Chapel Hill groups vary from semester to semester as well - demographically, skill-wise and culturally. You never know who you're working with until the first day of class.
Both of you worked together as co-teachers at Chapel Hill. How did traveling together expand your relationship? How have you two grown in your working relationship and friendship?
I've known Apple Juice for years as a musical collaborator but now we're business partners as well. We have a very different but complimentary skill sets that work well together; ie. I'm a rapper, he's a DJ - I'm a professor, he's a producer - I'm a writer, he's drummer. It's worked very well for us so far. We founded a company called ARTVSM - to merge the worlds of art and activism. This is the soul of Beat Making Lab and a common thread with everything that we want to do in life.
How has the process been of working on BML as partners? How similar/different are your working/creative style?
Great. The most important thing is that we're both on our grind. We both put in work - all the time; and that's exactly what it's taken to pop Beat Making Lab off.
What have you been most surprised by and inspired by in your travels?
Most surprised: the music. We've made some incredible beats and songs over the past several months and I couldn't be prouder of the work our students - many of whom are first time beat makers - have put in.
Most inspired: the model. We're attempting to build a sustainable community space, where the students teach each other and the music funds the workshops. Sometimes when I step back and access the implications of what we're trying to do, I'm inspired. And its not something we came up with on our own. It's been a community effort and we're proud to be a part of it.
A musician we interviewed in the past was quoted as saying, “I was working at a digital production school. It was so technical and digital that there wasn’t too much feeling in the music. They had open lab where students would come and work on their music, but everyone has headphones on. I would catch myself a few times looking around in the room and everyone is staring at their laptop and all I’m hearing are mouse and keyboard clicks. And this is music now!? I’m not sitting in a room where people are actually working together in a circle. There are no string players staring at each other trying to vibe out. Everybody is in their own little box, staring at their own screen, and it just seemed fucked up to me.”
What are your thoughts on this? From the web episodes, you’ve clearly succeeded in building a creative community.
Two thoughts on this: 1. We encourage collaborative beat making. On the first day of class we make beats with our hands, beatboxing on tables, and creating sounds organically in a cypher. This sets a tone we like to maintain throughout the Lab. Students work in groups, sometimes 3 or 4 to a computer. Its not quite as individualist as he describes. 2. our best friend is the splitter. Five headphones inputs per computer. They come standard in every Beat Making Lab.
In one of your webisodes, you mention you are teaching the students but that you are also learning from them. What have these students taught you about the creative process?
How to improvise, how to listen, how to communicate effectively without sharing a native language with someone, the value of good leadership and collaboration.
How far do you see BML expanding? What is your vision for the future?
We hope to put our curriculum online for free, for anyone who wants to learn how to teach what we do. We want to create our own open source beat making software so anyone with the will can gear up and start making beats without paying for an expensive new software. Ultimately - we want kids everywhere to be able to make beats if they want to. That's the ultimate vision.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Photo credit: Saleem Reshamwala
American artists have often found a particularly welcoming audience throughout Europe. From early Jazz performers in the first half of the 20th century to independent Hip Hop artists in the 1990's, it's often the case that non-charting musicians support their craft on the international circuit. While Hip Hop artist Akua Naru is adamant that Cologne, Germany is just a base for her meandering travels and an incessant tour schedule, there's no doubt she has benefited from that musical base.
In 2011 Naru released her debut album, The Journey Aflame, on German-based Jakarta recordsand followed up with a live-band interpretation of many of its songs the next year with Live & Aflame Sessions. Currently working on her next project, which will feature a special guest in the form of famed drummer Bernard Purdie, Akua took some time to speak with Project Inkblot about her perspective as a writer, a recent confrontation on the road and Hip Hop's global relevance.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is your being an American artist based in Europe, can you talk about how that lends itself to a different perspective or set of opportunities?
Of course it’s a bit different here, there are a lot of opportunities for artists to tour in Europe, I would say on a much larger scale. People here are willing to support artists that are not signed to major record labels, they just gotta like the music, you know? And I think that this is the reason why a lot of artists in the states [that] might have had a record out ten or fifteen years ago know that they can come to Europe and do really well just performing in different cities country to country. And in many ways it’s been great just travelling city to city and performing. I mean in terms of where I’m based, I don’t know if it really matters, I like Cologne a lot but I travel a lot. So it’s just that, it’s a base and because I’m here I’m able to be in other places [as well].
This may be a loaded question, but going to a place like Zimbabwe or going to Amman, what’s it like going to these places where a lot of Hip Hop artists don’t end up touring?
I mean, each place is different. It’s really great, it really continues to bring to my attention how amazing Hip Hop is. Like, I’ve been places where I’ve seen people where you would think there was no point of connection, they might be older or younger or they look totally different or they speak a different language, but they could rap the same song that I love, whatever song it is. Breakers, poppers, lockers, graffiti artists. I was in India a few months ago and I was teaching some Hip Hop workshops and I also gave a few performances, and just to see, you know, just to work with these women on writing their own rhymes and telling their stories. To see how they came into the workshop and the kind of performances they delivered as we were leaving this workshop, it’s just amazing.
Who would have thought that Hip Hop would have become so global? When Erykah Badu said it’s bigger than the government, in many ways she’s right. It’s really great, it’s powerful, it’s amazing to see how this culture has given voice to so many people, and to be able to connect with these people in their space, in their world and to be able to share my gift, it’s a dream-come-true for me. And it’s one that I don’t take lightly. It’s the grace of God, there is no way to describe how it feels. And also I think to represent the women in Hip Hop it makes it even more powerful.
I think it’s kind of a tired topic at this point to think about the lack of female emcee’s and maybe that’s because that’s a conversation that needs to emphasize the exposure of female emcees rather than the lack of them.
You’re right, it’s not about the lack of women but about the kinds of exposure that women Hip Hop artists are given, that’s really a good point.
I read that you and your band were recently confronted by a group of people in Romania, can you explain what happened?
It was in Hungary. Well actually the show was in a city called Cluj in Romania and it was awesome, we sold the place out, I think the maximum capacity was a thousand and they let in an extra 350 people, a lot of them had come a distance to come to the concert. I was really honored, it’s a great feeling to be an artist and to know that people are listening and will go to that extent to see you live. Like what else could you [ask for] as an artist? So I was already on a high from that and we were on our way back and, like I mentioned, we had stopped in Hungary in a rest area and I didn’t realize that we were being confronted by Nazi’s. I mean, these were people that seemed to be aggressive and they were chanting something that I didn’t understand. But I had just thought that they were celebrating a soccer match because you know people over here go crazy over soccer, so I just didn’t think twice about it although when we rolled up the way that they looked at me was kind of strange but my head was somewhere else, I wasn’t thinking about it.
And then as the situation started to unfold—you know I’m from the States, I remember growing up and seeing the Ku Klux Klan assembling outside of a supermarket, but I didn’t grow up where we were familiar with the whole Nazi language, of course they have the same premise that skinheads and the Klan [do], I mean, you know they operate from the same foundation. Some of the gestures [and] some of the language they use to hurt and to threaten and to imitate, it was foreign to me, I didn’t know that that’s what they were doing, I didn’t get it until a few minutes later when the people who I was with had made me aware of what they were trying to do and then it was really clear because they started to come to stand outside of the glass and started staring through the window. It was very clear then of course what their problem was and they wanted to aggress some of the people I was with.
And it was just—you know as much as I would like to say it didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t be telling the truth and it’s important for me to be honest. Normally I wouldn’t post anything personal online but I thought about it for a few days and thought 'no, let me share this experience that happened to me' because a lot of people are in denial of very explicit and obvious situations like that so of course they’re going to be in denial of racist incidents that are a bit more subtle. Yeah, I was really hurt by that. It’s obvious that we can’t go anywhere that we want to go. And as the situation escalated I wondered if the police would have supported us and to what extent with the story that I’m telling. So I’m grateful that we were able to get out of there without it turning into something more.
I think it speaks to the fact that the work that you and other musicians and academics do is still incredibly important.
Absolutely, whether or not this situation happened or not, you know what I mean? There are definitely instances that happen everyday, some not as extreme as that one, that reveal to us that we have a lot more work to do and that make me grateful to know that there are people in the world—there are musicians and some scholars—who are trying to make changes, that are trying to forge social justice in institutional change and it’s definitely necessary, it’s urgent and it’s important. I wasn’t really shocked unfortunately. We don’t live in a world where we’ve accomplished as much as we would like to think we have, we got a lot of work to do. So I wasn’t really surprised, I was hurt by it to be honest, but I know that there are a lot of fascist movements and there are a lot of people who don’t want progress.
Is that something that motivates your writing?
To be honest, I’m just writing. Of course I’m a Black woman, me being a woman and me being a Black woman has a lot to do with my identity and how I see the world and that comes across in my writing and in my message, my perspective and my ways of thinking [about] and being in the world, absolutely. I don’t know if I’m positioning myself, I’m not sure—I would have to think about it—I’m just writing what’s important to me and addressing issues that are important to me first.
And I guess that in me understanding that these issues are important to me they’re important for me to communicate for myself for other people who identify as I [do] might relate, and people who don’t might relate as well. That’s the beauty of creating art, it reminds us that we’re human, you know? And that we see ourselves in other people’s work. To your question, I’d have to think about how I’m framing myself, I don’t know if I’ve yet built a frame, you know. When I sit down and say iI want to write this,' I’m just interested in writing and communicating something first, I’m not meta-analyzing in the moment that I’m creating.
Hearing you talk about it and in your music it’s obvious that you really love writing.
Absolutely. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. If you let my mother tell you she’d tell you, I don’t know how I learned to read, I’ve always had just a natural love for reading, writing and literature. For as far back as I can recall, having memories, recalling events, they always involve me writing, reciting, recollecting, you know, and just putting it down. I’ve been doing it my entire life and I hope that I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life because it’s something that brings me great joy.
Well leading from there, you’re working on some new material. I guess you were working with Bernard Purdie in the studio, that’s crazy. So can you talk a little about what you’re working on and then just having the opportunity to work with people like Bernard Purdie or Angelique Kidjo or ?uestlove?
To answer that question, it’s very short, it’s a great, great honor. To me as a poet, as a writer, sometimes it’s difficult for me when I have to accept that I don’t have the words to describe something, it hurts, but I don’t have the words to describe that. All I can settle for is to say that it’s an honor and I’m really grateful, I thank God. It’s an honor to be able to create and work with people that are legendary, amazing artists, it’s a great honor.
To answer your question about Purdie, I’m working on my new album and he is a special guest and I’m very happy about that. So that’s what that’s about basically. It’s awesome.
I think some people will see Bernard Purdie and get excited immediately and others may not know him but will be able to appreciate the work that he’ll provide.
And I think that the people that don’t know him, they’re not conscious of it but they do know him, they’ve heard him, you know what I mean? If you listen to “O.P.P.” [by] Naughty By Nature or I could write a list of tracks where his beats, his drums were sampled, if you listen to Hip Hop music, you have heard him. So maybe they’re not conscious of knowing him but they do know. He’s a legend.
Your last album was really centered around the live music and interpolating some of those tracks for a live band, I would guess that the new album is going to feature the band as well?
I can’t tell you too much Jay [laughs]. Well I’ll just say for myself as a writer that you can be sure that the narrative is still going to be progressive, political, honest. Musically, it’s going to be Hip Hop of course. There are going to be some live elements as well, I’ll just say that. It’s definitely not going to be that when you listen to the album you’re going to think 'what?' You know, it’s kind of just like the next logical step. But definitely there will be some live influences on the album.
Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, I know you’re busy and in a different time-zone, so obviously we’ll be looking forward to the new album, whatever approach you’re taking with it.
Thank you for listening, it really is a great honor to know that people are listening because when I sit down and write I’m not thinking about the people, not to sound selfish, but when I sit down and write I think first about myself and being honest and true to the story that I need to expel and it’s about me first. And to know that when I’m being my most honest I could connect to people and that this could be a story of truth for other people, that’s a great honor. Just to know that people are listening, paying attention and following, that’s the highest compliment for an artist and I really appreciate you for that.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter.
If you've ever created any kind of movement, you know the dedication, resolve, humility, confidence, determination, and resourcefulness it can require. And while everyone looking through the sidelines marvels at how effortlessly you pull things off, they often remain unaware of a single truth.That ish takes a lot of hard work.
Alyson Greenfield is one of those people who gets things done. Inspired to create her own music festival after noticing the lack of artistic platforms for women musicians, Alyson created The Tinderbox Music Festivalin 2010. Debuting at Southpaw in Brooklyn and featuring 19 women artists on two stages, Tinderbox continues to expand. Last Fall, they featured their biggest show yet - 37 artists from around the world rocking out on three different stages at NYC's illustrious Webster Hall.
In 2011 I had the opportunity to work with Alyson on Tinderbox's second show, at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and was often inspired by her relentless energy, resourcefulness, sharp business sense, honesty, kindness, and creative vision. Almost 5 months after their Webster Hall event, Project Inkblot spoke with Alyson as she and The Tinderbox Team excitedly geared up for 2013. Ever the truth teller, Alyson spoke with me about how important it is to take care of yourself when you're creating something of such magnitude, how success can sometimes feel like failure, and how Tinderbox forced her to come to terms with what really matters.
How did Tinderbox start?
It started in 2010. Lilith Fair had come back on the scene - it was big in the 90’s – it’s a whole festival of women artists. I moved to NY in 2009 and I was thinking, I would really love to play this. I was a women’s studies minor and I was on the Chicago National Organization for Women’s board and it just made sense for me as a musician to do this. I had just moved to New York and I had been talking about starting a blog. A friend of mine said, 'well, your blog has to have a focus.' So, I started a blog pitching myself to Lilith Fair and every entry started with, Dear Lilith Fair. I really like to be creative and it was a big outlet for me. I didn’t get to play Lilith Fair but it was a great experience. I had helped run some unofficial showcases at SXSW that year and I had never done bookings or promotions before but I booked a bunch of acts and I thought oh, I can do this. I thought well, I’m not going to play Lilith Fair but I know a bunch of women who are amazing musicians. It seems like there was a desire for women to have a platform not only in the music scene but to be around other awesome women. I thought, well I have this music and business sense, why don’t I just create my own event instead of trying to be a part of someone else’s? Within a few months, we got ASCAP and Bust Magazine on board and had the event at Southpaw on two stages with 19 different artists. We just kind of pulled it off. We had this awesome community vibe. The venue said they’d never had such well-behaved artists. What was so great was that so many people were coming up to me like ‘wow, we heard so many great artists.’ They hadn’t heard of most of them. Every year the artists fall in love with some of the other artists and collaborations come out of it. I’m really excited about Kalae Nouveau and Charlene Kayewho met at Tinderbox and are collaborating now. I love when that happens.
That must be so gratifying.
Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. In some ways I’ve created something that is bigger than me. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t know how much of my life this can be because I have other responsibilities. At Webster Hall, so many people kept on coming up to me telling me how inspired they were. That was the word of the day.
We went from a 500 capacity venue at The Knitting Factory to a 2,600 capacity venue with three stages and 37 artists from four different countries. We blew the roof off from where we were before. It was really exciting and challenging and the event itself was amazing. Performing at Webster Hall as an artist was incredible and otherworldly.
How did you get all of these people on board?
There were a few people who came on board last year who, without them, Tinderbox would not have happened. Nasa Hadizadeh, Rebecca An…they were just instrumental. Then I brought on an assistant, Alexandra Martinez. These women were invested in Tinderbox like it was theirs. They came with great ideas and busted their butts and there were tons of other volunteers. They just took it on. I would ask them, why would you do this and work so many hours? And they would tell me what they were getting from it. I would feel bad because I didn’t have the budget to pay people or myself. The way people worked just astounded me. I would have conversations with people and they would share the value of Tinderbox with me. I felt uncomfortable asking people to do things especially when I wasn’t paying them. It was difficult for me to not feel guilty about not giving people paychecks. I had to understand that this was a reciprocal relationship. I’m getting something, they’re getting something and we’re working together to create things. I delegated and these women really took things on. What I finally learned this year is that delegation is key. It is so important. No one can do it by themselves. You have to trust the people you’re delegating to. It was really scary for me, because I don’t like asking people to do things. You can’t do things without other people, or you can - but you can’t do them well.
What are some of the changes you noticed in how you were running Tinderbox?
I felt less alone. I even had people say to me that when I first started Tinderbox I would refer to it as ‘I have to’ etc. That changed to ‘we’ as in, 'we need to' and people were like, that’s a good thing you’re saying ‘we.’ I learned that it’s important to trust people and to identify to people what they’re best at and let them do that. Once they did that, they would come back with results. We had meetings all of the time and I had to learn how to negotiate and deal with different personalities. People have different ideas and they feel strongly about them and this year we were dealing with different sponsors, and so many more people. I also learned how to be more diplomatic and honest. Everyone worked so hard. People were invested with their heart, as well as their time.
But after Tinderbox this year you realized you needed some time off from the project.
Tinderbox kind of took over my life. I had to pay my bills and I didn’t know if this was the thing that could do that. I couldn’t put my life on hold and not be able to take care of my basic needs any longer. We were working with artists and venues that were a lot bigger than what we had dealt with before. I’m good at negotiating, connecting and networking but there was a learning curve. I held it down but we didn’t have the capital at the ground level. We’re still young and we didn’t have the funding, and everyone was volunteering.
I felt like I had run into a brick wall. I am just crazy driven and don’t stop to breathe sometimes. If I have ideas, I will accomplish them but sometimes it comes at the risk of my sanity. I had devoted my life and sacrificed things like a regular income. I was focusing on it all of the time and you know how it is, you can work on it day and night and still never be done. I was still doing little things here and there to provide for myself but at the end, I just felt defeated.
Can you speak about why you felt defeated?
A lot of things came down on me because in these types of circumstances, things come down on the founder. I wore myself out. I think the expectations we have for ourselves are so high. You don’t let yourself breathe. I don’t know if it’s a do-it-all mentality or what. I’ve always liked to work. Ever since I was a kid, I had projects and would organize and set these structures. I was a perfectionist and I would just do and do and do.
I was like, I don’t know if this is going to happen again. I kind of felt like I had lost myself. I was living in this fantasy land where I thought if I worked my ass off, it would come back to me but it didn’t matter because it didn’t come back. It is coming back now – but at that time, it wasn’t. I didn’t have a life and at the end I felt like I was left with nothing and had done this huge thing that seemed to benefit other people, but at the end I had no energy - and I have a lot of energy – I was just done. It takes a lot for me to be done. I started resenting Tinderbox.
I think that happens to a lot of people.
Of course! Because if you don’t feel like something is giving back to you and you’re putting everything into it then that’s not balanced. There were incredible things that happened but I was almost mad at it. I didn’t want to talk about it. Pretty soon after the event, people were like ‘when’s the next one? I want to apply. What venue will you do it at?’ I was like, I don’t know if there will ever be another Tinderbox again. I cannot talk about it. Then I realized I had to get back to being a human being. I needed to provide for myself. I’m going to be the best at providing for other people when I’m setting an example and providing for myself. This is a key thing with women. Women are so good at providing for others and not always themselves.
Compassion for yourself is huge. I go to a lot of Buddhist talks and it’s so important. We think it’s an indulgence or something for leisure time. If you care about yourself you can be compassionate towards others. One of the Buddhist teachers says, ‘you know when you talk to yourself in your head and you’re being really mean to yourself, well would you talk to a good friend like that?’ And usually the answer is heck no. You’d rally for your friend instead of throwing punches. Having compassion is so important as well as realizing that things will happen on their own time. I think for me, also, there was a lot of thinking that things have to happen now. I spent so much time and energy on Tinderbox and I thought, things have to happen now! I have to prove this is real. I’m so over that now. In the second year we got press from TheNew York Times but it wasn’t enough. It was like, no – this year it’s going to be at Webster Hall. I had this unrealistic expectation that it had to be a certain way.
There was a sense of attachment?
Yes. It becomes really stressful because you say that it can’t be any other way. I think collectively, over the last two years, I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and meditation and really looking at myself and being honest. I realized I was being pretty mean to myself when Tinderbox was over. I felt like a failure. From the outside it wasn’t that way but from the inside, it felt that way. I started thinking I have worth because I am here and I’m human. I had gone camping in the summer with some friends and I was by the ocean and I thought: this ocean doesn’t care about Tinderbox. The world is so big. We make everything such a big deal.
After Tinderbox, I took a couple months away from it and I looked at our sponsorship deck, which is a compilation of our press, mission, goals, artists etc. and I thought, whoa - this is really successful. I kind of blew myself away. I had never really thought of that before because I was just working and doing and feeling like it wasn’t enough.
You didn’t realize how successful you had been before?
Sure, I had little glimpses here and there but it was always like, we’re not here with this we’re not here with that – all the things that we’re not. And looking at that was like wow, we met a lot of our goals and even exceeded some of our goals. And I thought, I have worked really hard and I am successful and success doesn’t have to be financial. There isn’t one way to be successful.
I reconnected. I genuinely like people and I finally realized I have something to give that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the music industry or being a musician or having a MFA. How can these gifts manifest? Maybe it’s something I never thought of. I let go of what I thought I should be or had to be to feel worthy. I thought, my priorities are: I need to pay my rent, I need to provide for myself and I haven’t been focusing on that. Now I have a few different jobs and I like them. They bring out different parts of my personality. And that’s nice to know. Things have been coming my way. When you’re open, the world gives you answers. Now I feel like the world is reaching out to me. I am also acknowledging now – I have always had this little thing on my shoulder that’s like ‘you’re not there yet. You better keep working’ but it’s like hey – I’ve done a lot of things. I don’t think I really thought that. I just let go…and it was hard. I opened up space so that things could come in. When you’re not making space for things to come because you’re always trying to get and go somewhere…when you can sit and be still….things can happen. All of these opportunities keep coming to me now. And the thing is, is that nothing seems like such a huge deal. It feels like ok yeah, let’s try that out whereas before everything was such a huge deal. Also, not taking yourself so seriously, that’s really important. Hitting that brick wall – it almost took that to build myself back up. At the time you think it’s the worst thing in the world but it’s really beautiful. Sometimes you have to go to the bottom in order to take those baby steps back up.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Feature Image credit: Jasmina Tomic
For some, classical music is often viewed as a staid and elitist genre, better suited for a symphony hall, the ballet, or curmudgeon university professors. Charly + Margaux, the self-described “metro-classical, cinematic chamber rock” duo kill it on the violin and viola (respectively) and in the process, completely change your perceptions about what classical music is and what it can be. As Margaux says, “classical touches me like no other music. It's such a deliberately composed piece of music. It’s almost a physical experience when I listen. I always hear people say ‘I like classical music to study.’ There's certain classical music you can't study to - it's so explosive. There are so many dimensions.”
We were (still are) pretty clueless about the genre, but Charly + Margaux’s love and passion for classical had us downloading symphonies. With their newest project, The Gallerina Suites, the pair continue to create music which embody a sense of play and boldness but can often transition into dreamy, emotive sequences. Their sound, coupled with their distinctive style, make them the kind of artists that are best seen and heard – their presence is unmistakable, their synergy: palatable. What we dig about C + M’s music is not just that they, are in their own way, challenging the status quo, but that they are natural storytellers. Their songs follows a narrative and it’s up to the listener to interpret the story it speaks.
Through chatting with Charly + Margaux, we discovered two grounded, intelligent, sharp women carving out a niche for themselves. A chance encounter on a Boston street corner in Copley Square, culminated in a move to New York City where the two currently live as roommates, homies, and creative partners. We were led to Charly + Margaux’s music through our own series of serendipitous events and were intrigued by what we saw and heard. Who were these women? What were they up to? The following video touches on their creative process; our audio interview delves deeper into their thoughts on living in NYC, staying true to their artistic integrity, weirdo New Yorkers on the subway, and the type of legacy they want to leave. As Charly says, "no one knows who we are right now, but we understand that what we want to contribute is going to take a lifetime to get across. We're starting small and laying huge bricks in our foundation.”
Word. We hear that. In fact, hear more beautiful insights from the duo in our CFPH audio interview about how they met, their tips on surviving creatively on the East Coast, and their most memorable exchanges with fans:
While it can sometimes feel like we’re standing still, the truth is, is that we are constantly evolving. Sometimes these changes can feel drastic, often they are imperceptible. Born and raised in New Jersey and a former social worker - singer, DJ, producer, family man, and trumpeter Miles Bonny, is in the midst of big changes. When we spoke to Miles, he was gearing up for a move from Kansas City, where he's lived for the past 8 years with his family to New Mexico. Beyond the move, Bonny continues to grow as an artist and play with the boundaries of what it means to be a blues/soul/jazz influenced singer. His songs incorporate a sense of intimacy usually reserved for the grainy sounding records your parents listened to when you were a kid - and his music emits a sense of nostalgia, ease, and vulnerability. When we spoke with Bonny, he was phasing out his work as a Cultural Communications Curator for individuals and non-profits and had recently returned from touring in Europe where he performed much of his latest album, Supa Soul Sh*t, with collaborator and producer, Brenk Sinatra. CultureFphiles chatted with Miles about his latest album, being an artist and a father of two, and waxed poetic on the following questions: how does my identity as an artist evolve? How do I make sure my work aligns with my values? How do I contribute to the greater good? Read on.
Let’s talk about Supa Soul Sh*t and the origins of this album.
Since I never made money from my music, I did it on the side…I jumped around from a lot of different jobs and I realized that I value my life and my potential and if I’m doing music this whole time, why am I not just doing that? When other people started taking my music more seriously, like listeners, I was like wait - they’re taking it more seriously than I am. It’s cool because good things are happening and maybe that has to do with my energy because I’m in that place and people can feel that.
How did creating Supa Soul Sh*t differ from your previous album, Lumberjack Soul?
Supa Soul Sh*t took a lot longer and so my vocal recordings were all over the place...it’s my first album completely with one other producer [Brenk Sinatra]. In the past, I've been the producer. As a cohesive work it definitely feels more powerful and deep than my previous release. When we toured we largely based our shows off of that album and people would come up to us and tell us how the show had impacted them, which was surprising. It’s not easy to perform this material when people are going to a show on a weekend night and they’re hearing slow ass soul music. But I think that because of Brenk’s strength as a spirit and as a person and how much he believes in the music, he would play the entire beat for each song not like, ‘oh we’ll do a verse here or a verse there’ so as a performer, it wasn’t easy but maybe it just made it more real. If it touched people there must be something to it. Music is just social work in that it provides a warmth that people don’t really get from other people or other settings in their life.
Do you feel your music provides that warmth or a sense of connection?
That’s not my intention when I record but I think that is something that happens as a result. I mean, I’m just trying to be genuine. I’m not like, ‘hey, let’s fuck all night. I got a lot of money.’
Well, soul music used to have a real subtlety to it. Even in Marvin’s, “Let’s Get It On” the message is clear - but there’s still a subtlety present that’s missing in a lot of music.
Yeah, and it comes off as being disingenuous. I love old music. I love things about new music. Why can’t we just make something that is honest and true for today without having to feel like that middle ground can’t exist?
If I am trying to describe what my music sounds like, I have to come up with words to do that, and that’s where marketing comes in and that whole, music-meets-non-music-conversation begins. I’ve been struggling for a long time given my understanding of marketing and how helpful it can be when you find those right words. I mean, ‘soulful’ doesn’t mean much. To a bunch of white people, it can mean ‘black’ music or something for ‘black people.’ You can’t say ‘organic’ anymore because it’s just redundant. I feel a connection between the idea of Jazz soul and beats. My history stems from hip-hop beats. There’s a trumpeter named Nicholas Payton who is creating a whole lot of hub hub now because he is saying Jazz is a derogatory term and it’s actually black American music and if you look back historically, all these people like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington were saying we don’t play Jazz, we just make music. All I get sent from producers are slow Jazzy beats which is a great - I really love being that guy who sings over slow Jazzy beats. But I also love crazy shit. I love the genre that is related to the music I make and the music that has historically preceded it, but I also love fast, danceable things and I’m thinking I can do both.
How do you negotiate the desire to try different things so you're being true to your evolution as an artist but also remaining faithful to your fans? Is that even something you consider?
My fans love the music I make. Or have made. Whether they like what I create in the future is up to them. I don't have zombie followers. I have a community of individually minded, free, progressive thinkers. They are evolving themselves in search of self and freedom. We all are, the world is changing before our eyes. Sticking to an easy formula or something that is purely about money is foolish for anyone.
I’m an ambassador for the type of music that I like. Musically, I make the music I want to hear...I'm conscientious about what I do. I'm not into pyrotechnics and choreography. I'm not a lighting designer or stockholder. I’m living a life based on my spiritual path and connection with community in this time. All with an understanding of the history of my musical lineage in my ancestors and with the recorded material that has shaped me.
It’s clear it’s important your values are aligned with your work. It can cause a lot of conflict when we do work that is not aligned with our values. Can you speak on that?
I would say, factually, probably most people don’t have their work aligned with their values. I think that’s why society is collapsing right now. As individuals, people are working purely for money and if the people they’re working for are doing it purely for the money then it’s hard to base an entire society on something that’s fake. We’ve had to choose boxes as jobs for people to fit, but they are essentially created by someone else, as opposed to us developing our own interests.
A lot of it comes down to how I am choosing to be perceived as an artist. And if I am being consistent with what I claim. I want to be someone people can rely on and trust. I’m starting to write things that are more reflective. If I genuinely believe strongly about things going on in the world and the people that listen to me also do, I can do it in a way where the music is enjoyable and not shoved down their throat. I’m growing as a songwriter and finding the balance between creating content that is not too personal that no one can relate to it but also not making it into a lecture. The fact is, is that there are things going on in the world that are ugly - but I don’t want to make ugly music.
That’s the hard part about anyone being adamant about social justice. It’s never ending, as far as the amount of ways you can shift your choices to be aligned with those beliefs. I’m trying to be conscious of not buying things from countries with bad labor laws…I was talking to a friend of mine and he was like, ‘yeah people might have these beliefs but we still don’t follow them when it’s inconvenient for us.’ At what point do I hold myself accountable? It doesn’t mean we have to be hard on ourselves but it’s still something I’m trying to work on.
How do you balance your family life and your career?
How do I not completely sell out and potentially gain greater fans or bigger opportunities while at the same time staying true to my values and make sure I have enough money to be a responsible father? So far it’s not hard, but it requires a lot of hard decisions. You can’t be lazy about it.
How has being a father and having a partner influenced your music and the way you approach your art?
It's increasingly becoming something my collaborators understand is important to me. My love for family and belief isn't "cute" - it's real. Raising children well is important and realer than any fame I could ever obtain. I could not buy what my family provides me and what I can provide them. My first video was based on my family life…at the same time, we give each other great freedoms. My partner and kids and family situation is amazing. I'm thankful. I want the same for others.
I started singing when I met my partner. The balance between touring, recording, and anything I do publically has to fit within my life as a whole. The song "As you sleep on my lap" did real well on my man's Ta-KU Soundcloud. People seemed to respond to the honesty of it. It was a freestyle recorded while she was in my lap, sleeping in the studio. I'm trying to be myself as much as possible. Myself, and my music are always getting realer as I learn more about myself and society.
My grandmother, Helen Bonny, wrote a book called Music Consciousness: the Evolution of Guided Imagery in Music. She wrote that even though she knew how to play violin she never wanted to be the person on stage, she wanted to touch people’s hearts. I was like fuck, I wish she was still alive so I could have a conversation with her. It’s like, I need to do shows because I want to connect with the people who like my music but I don’t really care about being on stage and I don’t really care about being famous. I just want to make good music and I’ll do whatever it takes to do that.
El Curandero is Minneapolis based producer/songwriter/instrumentalist Rico Simon Mendez' newest EP off of his imprint Cultura Love. I loathe saying things like that because this album is so much more than just the hotest new joint that just dropped. El Curandero is timeless, spiritual music that transcends so many cultural/genre constraints. Here are some things rather significant things that this interview + songs will make you question that will make you say "hmmm":
Does listening to too many artificial sounds have a negative impact on your psyche?
Does the camaraderie in musicians playing together actually give added benefit to the physical body?
What do you need to release your work and not hoard it?