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TastyKeish: Radio Maven and Community Cultivator

TastyKeish: Radio Maven and Community Cultivator

keish

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]I've known Keisha Dutes, otherwise known as TastyKeish, for years on the local NYC hip-hop scene. She's a hilarious live event host and a radio personality, not to mention pediatric nurse, thrift dealer, and a light weight comedian (at least in my book). In 2013, she cofounded Bondfire Radio, an independent radio station with a diversity of robust programs ranging from music to talk radio that keeps it real while still keeping it inspirational. Her own show TK in The AM runs every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning bringing conversations, rampant sass, and great music through your speakers. Keish's love for her native Brooklyn and her community of artists has inspired her to use Bondfire as a jumping off point to create a much larger initiative--a community art space in Caribbean Flatbush, Brooklyn-- by people of the community that will cater to the local community. In a fast changing Brooklyn, many new arts institutions are created and patronized by gentrifiers. Keish ain't with that. If you aren't either, she calls for you to join their cause. TastyKeish gives Project Inkblot a glimpse into her vision, shows us why radio isn't dead, and why it's usually a bad idea to run a radio show with six-year-olds.

How did you get the name TastyKeish? 

I did college radio and I had a whole bunch of different names, from Kiki--which I hate. I don’t even know why I ever entertained that. I had Big Keish, but I was not big. But it’s the radio, and who cares? I had so many names that I don’t even remember them. I went through college radio still not having an identity. Then, someone said something smart alecy about "Keish--like the food." So fuck it, Tasty Keish, and I’ve just been running with it ever since.

Tell me about the amazing growth of Bondfire Radio since it launched in 2013. 

We started with two shows, now we have seven, by the end of this summer we’ll have nine, by the end of the year we might have twelve. It's my job as a program director to look at these shows that make a difference to your life. Whether or not a million people are tuned in, the fact that I take one person away from the conglomerate shows, that’s a win for me.

These broadcasters are out here really working hard, bringing you regular fresh programming, and almost no re-runs. They are doing this just to be amazing people effecting change in this world, to give you the options that apparently you are asking for.

The beginning stages of starting a new business are the hardest. How do you maintain?

I have my day job, and when I have my day job that gives me motivation to not want to be at my day job. For me there is no other choice. Whatever incarnation it takes, there’s no such thing as failure for me. My stamina comes from knowing there’s no other choice for me. I know what I don’t want to do, and I know what I do want to do. This is it.

What’s your day job?

I’m still a pediatric nurse in private care, which gives me flexibility. It’s part-time. I feel like that’s progress.

Those are pretty different things. Has there ever been a direct overlap of nursing and radio for you? 

So I went to work at a summer camp after I graduated and they wanted me to be their nurse and their radio teacher. I’m an licensed practical nurse (LPN) and they needed me on site. I was sleeping there, giving kids medications, and teaching the radio program. I would take groups of kids at a time, different age sets, and they would come and do little programs on the campus station. I was out there for 10 weeks with six-year-olds. Have you ever done radio with six-year-olds? That shit is dangerous.

Why?

Because they are impulsive, they get in their feelings very easily, they are a lot like adults. I had one time where I was with them in the morning--they were six to nine--one girl felt like she wasn’t getting enough microphone time. It was very early in the morning. It was just me with the kids and maybe two people in the adjacent office. That little girl had decided that she had had enough. She ran out. It was a decision that I had to make, go rescue the one and leave five of them in this office alone, or stay with the five? Rescue the one, or stay with the five? So I just yelled “yo, we got one loose. I’m running! There’s five here, I don’t know what to do with them.” So whoever was in the office looked after them. I ran after this one girl because there was a road. If there wasn’t a road I would have left her to wander the fields, but there was a road. I just pictured a car coming. I was like, “hey little girl. what is wrong with you?” She was like, “I’m not getting enough time,” and I’m like, “well you have to share.” So we have this moment about sharing and I get her to come back. The infraction was so deep that they got their show taken away from them. Because you don’t run into the road! Even though it didn’t work out for them, it was a sharing moment that we had, and it taught me about six-year-olds, and not to let them do radio shows.

Haha. What was the biggest takeaway for you that summer?

You know, people of color don’t be doing sleep away camps. Girl, it’s true, have you seen them? It was me and four little black kids, and 100 white kids, but I loved it because this little black girl came to the office one day and she said something to the affect of being happy that I was there, because we look alike. She was maybe six or seven. So then I knew I was on the right track, whether they got their show taken away or not, I was like, somebody is listening. Somebody gets it. That became my mission, even if it’s indirect, one person, a little kid, an old lady, somebody from Michigan...That was my memory marker, 2005 summer camp, run away children, and little inspirational moments.

Now you're a part-time nurse. What’s your advice for people who want to take the leap to go part-time or leave their jobs altogether?

When I went balls-to-the-wall first time, I had a plan, but I didn’t have a plan plan. My coping mechanisms don’t work when there is no plan. It was more comfortable for my psyche and my mental stability to be part-time, because I know that something is coming. Some people need to quit their job. You gotta find out what works for you. For me, it wasn’t cutting it. I tried that and it freaked me out too much. The freaking out can make you paralyzed. I was becoming paralyzed in my freedom, so I said, you know what? let me build some of these walls back up. I’ve been part-time for sometime now and it keeps me going, to know that I have a roof over my head. I need to feel safe in life. The whole Maslow’s hierarchy: I need shelter, food, and security, and then I can do this shit. Find out what you can work without. If you can work without food? Girl, that’s weird. If you can live on your friend’s couch? Do it. I can’t. Find out what you don’t need. Eliminate those, and then do little things. Start from building blocks. You have an idea? Now how can you make that idea a reality?

My idea-to-reality process was coming back from overseas trip and noticing that all of these people were going for it balls-to-the-wall. I met these four young men from France that were starting their own urban wear store with a barber shop in the back. They were building a studio in the back to do radio, and it was just four guys. Find points of inspiration and make it happen. For me, it meant calling my friends to help me paint my basement and turn it into a studio. That’s how the first studio was built. It was a paint party, pizza, beer, soda, boom! You do little shit like that and it motivates you to do the next thing. I know I can’t bullshit on these people who came to my crib and painted. Those people expect me to do something with that. I have to show them that I am putting in the work. Find inspiration. Find out what you can live without, and make yourself accountable to people. This campaign is making me accountable to people now. Now they need to see this new studio when we finally have to leave this one.

What is the end goal for Bondfire Radio? 

The vision is to create this space that we can have for the community. So many people are hitting my inbox like, “yo, I just want to get a building in Brooklyn before it’s too late. I just want a place where I can do my dance programs.”

I want this to be a space for creative people to come and do panels, talks, to come set up their computers, if they want to just use some wifi and tap out some emails, come visit us! It’s not just about the media aspect. We can broadcast from anywhere, but this is more about the community and to get people to come out and share. That’s the vision. We just want a space that’s ours, especially in this underserved area that we’re in now. We’re in Caribbean Flatbush, to me that’s everywhere from Empire Blvd to almost King’s plaza, where the Caribbean community is. It’s beef patties and it’s liquor stores, it’s churches, and jerk chickens. There’s nothing cool out there yet. The artists haven’t come out there yet, and we want to be the artists to be the ones to bring it. Not some colonizers. Real talk. Before the gentrification hits--and I see it coming--I want to have this space. Before the rents go way up, I want to have this space. Before we are priced out of our neighborhoods, I want to have this space. I think we can do that.

How do you reconcile the fact that people like us are the artists that contribute to the first step of gentrification? 

We work within the community. We do a lot of community service, meeting people who have needs out here, out in Caribbean Flatbush and in underserved areas. We reconcile ourselves with that. We have to give back actively. We can’t just move into a neighborhood and magically set up some cool shit. For us, it doesn’t work that way. We’ve been doing community service before the radio show started. That’s how you got to get in there, you have to shake some hands, go up into that church and be part of their food services, become part of the community. Don’t just set up some effin’ artwork outside like, “I’m the cool shit,” right next to the beef patty place that you never talk to the proprietor. I eat a beef patty everyday just so I can go say hello. It’s delicious too, and it’s cheap.

Also, keep your stuff affordable so that they can participate. I’m from Brooklyn, I’m from the area, I did my time in Long Island because I have Caribbean parents, they always want to do this moving on up, George Jefferson, “I’m moving to Long Island, Queens,” but I decided as an adult to live in Brooklyn, to work in Brooklyn. Every time I get a ticket, I’m giving back to Brooklyn, everytime I get a summons for some bullshit, I’m giving back to Brooklyn. Become part of the community. That’s how you reconcile yourself.

Even with the popularity of crowdfunding, it's still super difficult for most of us to ask for money. How are you experiencing that in your campaign? 

I don’t cope well with things where I have to ask for help. It’s just that I’ve been socialized to just go ahead and help myself that when it comes to asking for help, I always think I’m asking for too much, or I’m very gentle with it, but now is not the time for that! Now’s the time for replying back to everyone who said “Yo, Keish, what you’re doing is amazing. I got you!” Now’s the time for me to come back at you and let you fill that empty ass statement with some action. “I got you.”--The fuck? That’s like “let’s build.” If it doesn’t have any action behind it, it doesn’t mean anything.

What's the hardest part of getting people to support this campaign? 

I think they don’t know about us. This is just as much an awareness campaign. This is not the first time that someone ever thought about making a radio station that addresses the needs of the people, but there’s such a small amount that are doing it well, like really programming instead of just playing mixes.

I was in my feelings about my family and friends regarding this campaign. Getting out of that is important because I can’t function. I can’t do the work that needs to be done if I can’t function, and not functioning means we stall and our campaign stalls. We have to show that our campaign has value compared to the 75% that suck and aren't relatable, whereas I know for a fact that this relates to people, because everyday on my timeline there’s people complaining about commercial radio, and commercial artists. “Why is no one supporting me? No one is playing my songs! No one is giving my cause a chance. No one is coming to let me talk about women as entrepreneurs, sensitive men, or whatever.” But we do that. Now I’m telling you, we have a platform here, we made this, it’s functional, it’s happening, it’s already in the world for you to enjoy, and for you to act on.

For many of us entrepreneurs, "getting in our feelings," is one downfall of productivity. How do you deal with that? 

You got to keep your classy face on all the time. When you’re not keeping it on, people who you let see you in that way have to be your trusted peeps. My friends are there to listen, some of them give me advice that I need and some that I don’t need. When I don’t need it, I tell them, “Hey, I just need this moment to spazz out. You don’t have to say anything. I just need an ear, because I don’t want to be one of those guys who goes on Facebook and is like, “Y’all motherfuckers don’t support. If I had a dollar from all of y’all, we would have been done this.”” Nah, that’s so passive aggressive and bullshit. I don’t want to be that guy, so I have a few friends that I call and I tell them “yo, can I just come over and watch tv with you?” I’m not good at turning it off, but I turn off the internet, I turn off the internet, I unplug, and I start over.

If it’s a work thing and I feel like maybe I’m not pushing myself hard enough, I do one small thing on my list. Maybe instead of sending 20 emails, I send one heartfelt email and see how far that gets me. Sometimes I’ll hear back from that one email and it will change my mood. I recently got an email back from a family member that said, “I feel you, I love what you’re doing, I’m getting married so I can’t really contribute, but I’m going to share this.”

Just the fact that she hit me back--not that she said she was going to share it, not that she said she had other stuff that she had to spend money on, but the fact that she hit me back turned my whole day around, because you feel like someone heard you. I just need someone to hear me in those moments where I’m at my lowest.

You just reminded me of this Einstein quote that was "Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value." What do you think about that? 

When you want to do something in the public eye, people automatically think of whatever mainstream thing is out. You know my momma from the jump has been like, “did you send your resume to Oprah?” I love Oprah, I just feel like I can effect change over here, and one day someone is going to tell her about us, which is going to be amazing and great, but I’m not going to wait for her. I had to reconcile myself in recent years with what I wanted. Did I want to be a radio personality on a big station that doesn’t help people in the same way that I want to help people? When I realized the downward spiral of commercial radio, I finally had to say it out loud. When I verbalized it to another person, it made it real how much I didn’t want to do that. When I said it, I almost whispered it. “I don’t want to go on that station anymore.” And they were like, “why are you whispering?” And I was like, “because I’m scared.”

It’s like, if you aren’t aspiring to work for the big dogs, what are you aspiring to? And I’m like, oh my god, does that mean I’m like a loser that doesn’t want to be great? No, I want to be great by helping other people. Fuck it, so now I’m saying it loud over this truck driving by right now, “I don’t want to be on the big stations!” I want to keep doing the work that we’re doing. You have to reconcile those things with yourself, and when you do, it’s a revelation. I no longer whisper it, but if I do get that opportunity, maybe if they’re like, “TastyKeish, we would love to do radio with you.” I’m going to be like, “do you have things implemented? Are y’all giving out turkeys?” I need something, so I can go back to my peoples and be like, “I know I told you I wasn’t going to sell out, but they are giving away turkeys.” I need to go back to my peoples with something. I’m not closed to it, but I’m not seeking that validation anymore. I’m looking for a way that can build this dream to help other people, because this is not some shit that needs to be kick-started. It’s already being done.

Don't forget to Tweetand Facebook TastyKeish!

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Tom Tom Declares 'Drumming Is For Girls'

Tom Tom Declares 'Drumming Is For Girls'

Sadly in 2014, anyone going to a music venue, festival, or jazz hall is still all too familiar with seeing a mostly male line-up, with the rare novelty of a woman performer (even rarer that the woman is a musician). As a former music journalist, I can say that with both certainty and regret. Mindy Abovitz, drummer and editor-in-chief of Tom Tom Magazine founded the publication with a simple mission to change all of that: To increase women musicians and drummers around the world. I might remind you now that women consist of more than half of the world's population, so naturally it would make sense to see half of the musicians of the world also be women. What's worse than not enough women musicians, is an even lesser media representation of them. Tom Tom hits both issues on the mark by committing to content that is women driven, and just damn good. It's not throwaway content about what's "hot" at the moment, but really thoughtful/thought provoking articles that speak to the everyday musician or music curious reader. For me, digging into an issue of Tom Tom is like watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. You get to walk into all of these windows of vast and robust global cultural histories through the perspective of music. I met with Mindy at the Centre for Social Innovation and listened to her speak sharp truths about being a first time entrepreneur, a die-hard activist, and a life-long musician. For Mindy, the buck doesn't stop at Tom Tom, she has some bigger visions ahead...

Where are you from?

Miami. My family is Israeli. I’ve lived in New York for about 12 years without any family here. Now I live in Greenpoint, which is a really cool neighborhood because there are so many upstarts there. Kickstarter just moved there and it feels a little like San Francisco just within the last year, but it's still a very Polish neighborhood.

Walk me through how you decided to start Tom Tom.

By 2009, I had already been playing drums for 9 years, and also working in the industry at Main Drag Music, East Village Radio, throwing shows at my house, and doing live sound at the Cake Shop. I had a variety of jobs in the music industry and was in touring bands. I was making money in what I’ll call “a man’s world,” while simultaneously living in this mirroring world that was all women musicians where I was a volunteer drum instructor for Rock Camp for Girls and viBE SongMakers. I was working at East Village Radio, I did a search for "girl drummer", "women drummer", "female drummer" on Google and what I pulled were real shitty results. I’ve been a raging feminist ever since I was born--and I’m getting things like, “can girls play drums?” in Yahoo Questions, scantily dressed women on drum sets. I thought, I have enough skills now, and it’s a kind of a plebeian-like moment on the internet where it feels like a regular person like myself could look larger than myself and potentially make a dent. And I decided, I’m going to start a blog. It’s going to be a magazine about female drummers, and if there’s one already, I’m going to work with them, and if there isn’t, I’m going to be it.

My first and only goal was to change those search results, to actually have something accurate come back, something that I would feel good about. I wanted a real representation of a woman at the kit really playing, and telling her story.

I started our blog in 2009. The first interview was of me interviewing myself. I was certain that there would be another magazine about girl drummers. I start telling people what I was doing, and surprisingly no one else was doing it. Then friends of mine who are now artists that people care about, wanted to be in the magazine and to be interviewed. Friends wanted to photograph them, and other friends wanted to write about them. People just started climbing out of the woodwork and somewhere five or six months in, people asked for the next level of validity, which was putting it into print. I had zero intention of starting a magazine.

We put out the first issue in November 2009, which was 16 pages long. I called it quarterly because that seemed like the least amount of commitment that I could put in. It is actually an enormous amount of commitment.

Has the focus of your work changed over the years, and if so, why?

My work is now a lot less creative. It’s still very politically charged, but now I'm focused on getting advertising, specifically from the drum industry. That is the most political thing I think I can do and also the thing I think can create the most ripple and effectively reach our ultimate goal, which is more women and girls drumming. I feel like if the industry itself invests in girl drummers, by purchasing an ad and writing a check, they will follow through and make sure that women and girls start playing. It’s important for us that their drum kits are designed with girls in mind, their advertising has women in them--which I always talk to them about--and that they start looking for more female endorsees.

On the creative side, I have about a hundred people who contribute illustrations, photography, writing, design, and my staff is about 5 people who actually get paid to do that. Everyone else is volunteer.

Is the magazine something that you are passionate about doing long-term?

I am passionate about social change on a mass scale. It’s a numbers game for me. I want to see girls and women free to play the drums all over the world. If I find that there’s a better way of doing it than the way that I’m doing it, then I’ll do that. If it means that I go on TV, if it means that I make a film, I write a book, if it means I keep making a magazine, if it means I design a t-shirt slogan, whatever that key is that will change everyone’s subconscious mind, I will do that. So am I wedded to making a magazine? No. Am I keeping on plotting along, thinking that people are acknowledging and recognizing it, so that’s one step in the right direction? Yeah. Is media extremely powerful? Yes. We’ll do the magazine so long as it’s a vehicle, and so long as it’s effective.

What were the factors that made you feel that this work was absolutely necessary? 

I started playing music when I was 15 years old. I was first introduced to Riot grrrl and my brother gave me the bass. I didn’t feel comfortable playing music and didn’t feel welcome to it. I felt like I had to fight to be a musician. I cried when I got my drum set at 20, and I think those emotions were built up because I probably had wanted it for so long, and didn’t know I was allowed. The next 10 years of my drumming career was about playing, and I can’t explain to you what it’s like to reach something you were always told you weren’t allowed to do, and to fight for it consistently. I felt like I had to fight to gain validity as a drummer every day, every show, every tour, every album. The goal of Tom Tom is to make it easier for all the girls and women who want to do this now and in the future, to have less of a fight.

As I became a media maker, I became also equally passionate about showing people of varying races, gender identification, class, age, ableism, body. Media is so fucked. We have an opportunity because we’re making a magazine. Cool. Let’s make it the way we wish we saw the rest of media too. There happens to be a direct mission about increasing women musicians, but within it, we are doing more than that. We don’t style any of our women, they come to the shoot and we do Wall Street Journal type photojournalism. These are people as they are, as they want to be presented. If you can’t see yourself, you feel like you don’t exist, so it’s our goal to put everybody in the magazine and to put out ethically solid media.

Is there less of a fight now?

No.

Do you feel like now you are an authority on this topic, and that a real shift has been created by the work of your magazine already?

No we haven’t reached the masses yet. We have a very strong following of people. The drum industry knows about us, which is great, but I think it might actually take 10-15 years of us doing very strategic moves for it to permeate society, maybe longer. And I’m not just interested in North America. There are parts of the world where girls and women will be killed, raped, or violated in other ways if they play music. That is a whole other level of undoing.

We have only scratched the surface. If we pull out now, it might not matter. The work we’ve done might go away. I really feel that way.

What's the process for deciding the content for each issue? 

The first way that we started to do that was to assign themes to issues, themes that we knew nothing about, like country or metal or marching bands, or symphony. I was pushing my staff to reach out to people who’s work they respected but didn’t know. That has been the best part of the journey--uncovering someone who thought they were alone, thought they would never get media coverage in any possible way--and celebrating them.

What's the breakdown of your readership, and does that inform the content? 

At this moment of in time, we reach a quarter million readers a month across all of our platforms: social media, web, and events. Of that, about 65% are women, the rest are guys. We don’t have any studies about the nuances between gender yet. I constantly do focus groups, and then I do discussions all around the country and around the world. I ask them to critique the magazine. Early on, in issue #2 a guy said something that resonated, which I think is still true today. He said, “this isn’t a regular drum magazine, because it’s kind of about an average drummer. It’s about an average musician. I’m reading an article about a person loading their van and going on tour, and how to keep my day job while going on tour.” Those are the kinds of stories we’re putting out there, never glamorizing the 19 piece kit.

It took us 10 issues to put Sheila E on the cover. It was pseudo intentional and also her speed too, but we weren’t, and we still aren’t trying to put that number one drummer or that number one band on the cover. They’ll be there, but we’re also going to put someone you’ve never heard about. This guy was like, “I can relate finally! I’m not comparing myself to people in your magazine, I am them.” Guys tend to really attach themselves to the magazine because it’s really human. It happens to be about women, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s about music.

What have been some the most useful critiques for the magazine? 

I can mention the big critiques we’ve gotten, because surprisingly we get so few. Earlier at that same focus group we got that all of the brown people were in the second half of the magazine, not the first half. I totally noted that and made quick changes. The second major critique that we got was, we had a huge group of feminists tell us that it seemed to be fashion oriented, which was odd, because everybody chooses their own clothing and how they want to represent themselves. So I made a conscious effort to explain that everyone was wearing their own clothing, and doing their own thing, so if it looked fancy or glossy, that was everyone’s own decision. More recently--which is worth noting--I had a woman write me and say that there isn’t a lot of older drummer content in the magazine, and she noticed that when we do put an older drummer in the magazine, we are putting photos of her when she was younger. I was like, wow, thank you! The staff--everybody found out about it. I wrote her back, and everyone was cc’d on it, and I said, “you’re right. we’ll work on changing that.” We were printing these vintage photos thinking, this is when the band was popular, but these were women are still drummers now, they are not throwbacks.

How do you respond to criticism?

I like dialogue instantly. People told me early on, "do not respond to negative feedback." I don’t understand that. As soon as someone has a critique for me, I answer. I answer because I feel like communicating to people is human. What are you going to do, ignore someone? Or just make the change and they don’t know about it? Change is made by being heard, having a dialogue, and walking away and having the conversation with someone else.

Where would Tom Tom be if you weren’t here anymore?

I basically have gotten an MBA in the past four years doing Tom Tom. I read Fast Company, I read Inc. like a mad person. The question of sustainability, like who would replace you, is a new business thing that I learned a couple of years ago. There are two thoughts that flip around my head all day long, sustainability and path of least resistance for my entire team. This question of who’s going to replace me? That’s coming. I’m slowly learning about business, and I’m half way there I’d say.

Do you ever wake up not wanting to do this?

It’s not when I wake up in the morning, it’s somewhere around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I have small panics, where I’m like, "this is too big. What am I doing? This is a beast, and it’s taking over my life." I have those moments and my mom has been really helpful. She reminds me, “these are your decisions. You built all of these decisions up to where you are right now. They have made you happy.” Basically, I’m looking at it like it’s a beast, and she reminds me that it’s my beast.

It sounds like this work can be both laborious and exhausting. Is it worth it to you? 

There’s a super high to being your own boss. I’ve worked for people since I was 15 years old. I can remember what it’s like to work for other people, any second of the day. That’s another thing that’s extremely helpful. My other option is to take a teaching job or go work for a marketing company. Those are my real options. And no, I don’t want that! That’s how I snap out of those doubts.

How do you garner, not just a group of followers, but a die hard community behind this united cause?

What it is about me and Tom Tom is that I want to talk to anyone and everyone about it, and there’s zero pretension involved in the magazine. We’re not trying to do anything. Everyone is included, period. Grandma, grandpa, anybody. I think anyone and everyone has a story, obviously. Anyone and everyone could be a musician, anyone and everyone could be a drummer. I guess it’s my way of being able to interact with people. I love everybody. I mean that. I’m going to go into politics later in my life and work on mental illness, and social reform around mental illness, and rebrand and remarket it. That’s my 40s, but this is a vehicle to see how open people are. We happen to be in a sexy and cool city, and music happens to be cool, so when you add none pretentiousness to that, and it’s sort of a mindfuck. I think that might be the key to Tom Tom’s success.

Logon to Tom Tom online: 

www.tomtommag.com

Subscribe to the magazine: 

http://shop.tomtommag.com/collections/the-mag

Follow Tom Tom on social media:

Facebook || Twitter || Instagram

Tom Tom Magazine produces

Hit Like a Girl Contest

with DRUM! and TRX cymbals

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Shira E Is Electric

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Shira E Is Electric

Shira E has this haunting kind of voice, the kind that immediately silences a room full of people in the midst of hearty conversation. There is a palpable quality to the sound that she emits through her lungs, a thick-like-molasses and indulgent vibration, lulling you into some otherworldly experience. This is what I witnessed when I walked into Launchpad during the Women Love the World Conference last month. I entered into the dimly lit room with this small silhouette of a person standing in front of a large projector, playing the Roland 404 synthesizer, and hand drumming. I was in love with whatever was going on and needed to meet this person.

We set up an interview at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and sat on a bench under some trees, and got to chatting. Shira shared with me her beliefs about the practicality of poetry, the challenges that women face when trying to tap into electronic music, the simultaneous significance and insignificance of our existence in this universe, and her exciting new Indiegogo campaign to help her spread her awesome new album all around the country.

You mentioned that you recently relocated to NYC. What brought you here? 

I live in Brooklyn, but I swore I would never live here in the past. I was done doing all of these jobs, while writing, and doing music mostly on the side after touring for a bit with poetry. I had fed my artistic life, and eased into a place where I was mostly not doing it anymore. But then, synchronistically, I quit three jobs and then fell in love, and she lives here, and all of that pulled me to the city. I had never felt that way before in terms of a city calling me, but I felt like I wanted to put an intention into art instead of just doing it because I love it. When you make a move like that, you’re putting your pennies in a jar, but you’re actually feeding yourself what you want to be fed.

What are you currently doing in the City? 

I’m a teaching artist: I teach gay elders poetry on Wednesdays at a place called SAGE, I’m also in Queens with teenagers teaching writing and theater, I’m a mentor with Urban Word, and I teach online writing classes to individuals all over the country, which is really fun. I’m also making music.

Music-wise, what are you working on? 

I’ve been working on a record for probably a year. I’m with a new machine--the sampler. Before that I was all guitar-based and with ukuleles and stuff like that. So I’m percolating and recording and just working with people on art.

What sparked your interest in going electronic? 

I just had the desire to do it for so long, and truth be told, I just felt like I didn’t really see women doing it, and it feels kind of funny to say because now I see so many women doing it, but at the time I didn’t. I grew up playing the guitar, so I knew the ins and outs of it; It was something that was safe, that I felt comfortable with. Going electronic, it was exciting and unsafe in a way. I had just dreamt of doing it for so long, and seeing people doing and all of this cool stuff, like someone with six samplers, and one loop pedal...

Part of the intention of moving here was that I was going to buy a sampler. I had never touched one until a year ago. I had asked guy friends to help me, but there were only a few who were willing. You really need to feel a sense of encouragement with that stuff, really with anything, or any art form. Now when I’m playing, a woman will just sneak up to me over my shoulder and say, “can I see?” and I’m like, “come on! Touch it. Look at it. Take out the wires, and do what you want,” because it’s really not our turf.

Why isn’t it our turf?

Stereotypically. I even remember being in high school and being the one female rock player in a circuit of friends. I had to find them, like I made girl bands and things like that, but I guess I more so mean that for me to walk into a guitar center and ask for cables, or something like, a guitar felt way smoother and easier than going in there about gear that I knew nothing about, or felt like were more stereotypically linked to guys. When I thought of that music, I thought of Animal Collective. I couldn’t even think of groups with women before, but now I can probably name five or six.

Can you name some?

I can name Grimes. I can name Tune-yards. I feel like when Tuneyards popped up, I was like, I don’t necessarily want to make that music, but I was so excited just to see the level of intensity of skill that come with those electronics, and I think I also didn’t have an entrance into a scene where that was true. I’m sure there are cities where women are dominating the scene. I just didn’t have the entrance into that.

What was your learning process like? 

I felt so compelled that I just sat with the manual. I’m not techy at all, which is why it was so intimidating. You can even take gender out of it—I’m not techy. I just sat with it, and I would try to spend two hours just with the stupid manual to just figure things out, and then my friend Emmanuel, who’s insanely talented and in Many Mansions, I would go over to his place and he would show me stuff that I had totally intuited wrong, and would re-wire and teach me. With his loving help and just a lot of devotion—I think I was just honestly ready for a challenge. Previously, I would bend the guitar with all of these crazy tunings just to make these sounds that I wanted, and I sort of hit a ceiling, and this was definitely so out of my comfort zone. I was so excited about having so many sounds available, not just guitar, but I could put anything into that sampler, and it would just create a forest of different sounds.

What kind of a sampler do you use?

It’s a Roland 404. I’d say, it’s older, but folks still use it.

Do you now have interests in other electronics? 

Not really. The truth of it was that I kind of wanted a band. If I think that I absolutely need to have drums, then maybe I would start to synch up the sampler with the live drums or get a drummer, or something like that. Right now, that machine is still so new to me still, that I just want to get more cozy with it before I add a loop pedal to it or anything too naughty. Though I really do want to play electric guitar with it. I miss that fuzzed out, delicious, electric guitar. That’s a secret dream.

How does poetry play into music, and vice versa?

My name [Shira] means both. It means poem and song. People have asked me often, which do I love more? Or how do they affect the other? Because I have grown up doing both, I really feel like they are two arms. It’s not like one is more important, but they are just so vital. Even before coming to meet you, I was kind of in a weird mood space, so I just played for five minutes, and it just cleared me out somehow. I think with music, with both of them, there’s a way that I’m in conversation with myself. Like I know myself better because I have these tools. I can’t imagine not having them. It seems I can sit down and have a conversation with myself and then become a different Shira. That’s actually crazy ya know? They offer me similar things, but they also diverge in what they can give me beyond those similar things.

I went out with my friend Beverly, who is 94. I met her at the class I teach, and we were having drinks, and she was like, “okay, you’re in front of God. Music or poetry? And I don’t want anything bullshitty. This is really happening, which one is it?” I felt like, what am I supposed to say? Even though both are so important to me, I think there is a way that music does something--it almost includes the writing in a way, but writing can’t really include the music. It can leap and have it’s phonetic delight, but music just cuts in a different way. It doesn’t mean that a poem can’t cut the way music can, but music does something that’s not word oriented, even when I think of the sounds that we transmit, part of it is not language oriented, it’s just full body oriented, if that makes sense.

What kind of power does poetry have?

Oh my god. I really think, like how people stand up and salute the flag--I actually don’t really know because I was born in Israel, I came here at six, so I’m kind of confused about what people did at schools. If they still do that, I just wonder what it would be like if they started school and everybody had poetry time. It's like the clam that takes the dirt and makes the pearl--to be able to have that process within ourselves, and to give kids that. It’s such a tool, that refines your understanding of how to communicate with people, it refines how much you appreciate life every second. I just imagine everyone, down to the president being a poet. It actually makes me embarrassed and a little weary at how I used to look at poetry when I had idols at 18, and saw folks like Saul Williams and would freak out. Now I see poetry in a totally practical light.

When did you figure that out?

When I moved here, I was right at the age that I was fluent in Hebrew, but was learning English, and so language wasn’t a given. I heard things a different way than someone who grew up here being told, "book means book", and "cat means cat", and that’s what it is, but when you have something else to think of as a language, and you're learning new words, it just tweaks your brain a little bit to handle words differently. They weren’t just things that you would say to your mom as a kid, it’s also how you maneuver the world as someone in a new world.

I remember being in third grade, we were doing spelling, and my teacher was like, "I don’t know if she’s been in the states long enough to be in this spelling group." They gave us kids words about the season, vocab about flowers, and I remember--it sounds braggy, but it was just a fact--that I made something of the words that my mom and the teacher were both like, “whoa! Oh my god.” I think it’s that ability to really care and have love for these objects that people call words that you can move them around and express something and see what they are. You can’t take them for granted. You can do things with them that are brand new.

Does New York help or hinder your ability to find clarity through art? 

I need to make things. It’s my way of being a better Shira, which I didn’t really realize until my friends were like, “yo, you need to make something, because you’re having a hard week.” In that sense, I look at the places that I’ve lived, which are like Brookline and Boston in Massachusetts where I grew up, and I look at Northampton, Amherst, and then I look at here (NYC). I think that I always was making, but the difference here is time. I don’t know if it’s just because I'm getting older, but the constraints and limits of time, but in Western Mass, I worked less, and I could work less because I could pay for things for less, so I had more time to delve into writing. But now that means that my focus is so intense here. When I do sit down, and I’m with my sampler, I’m like, “okay, it’s you and me. We’re stuck in an elevator called tonight, and we’re just going to do this!” So there’s that. I think it’s affected my focus.

In general, the intensity of the city, asks something back, whereas the landscape and colors of Western Mass is just simple ease. It’s the word that I think of when I’m there that allows for a different style of art making, a different response.

How do the people around you influence the way you create? 

I kind of understood something early on because I played a lot of team sports and you really rely a lot on each other, and you have to be available and be kind actually, otherwise it doesn’t work. Your team falls apart. There’s a way in which I saw that, if a person, a fellow teammate could affect me so much, I had that power as well. That is ever-present in my mind. I’ve always been able to have community and people around me who challenge me, and inspire me. When I haven’t had that it’s been horrible.

Can you talk about that?

When I was at UMass I was writing from 12-4 am every night, just on my computer--work that now when I look back cannot be seen by anyone! I was trying to connect with people, but I just couldn’t really find it. In high school, I had a lot of access to very different artists, from vegan nutty nuts, to painters, to someone who was a jockey who wrote incredible essays. It was all available. To shift to a huge university where I just couldn’t really find that was overwhelming. I felt more freedom when I transferred to Hampshire College to pursue art more aggressively.

I first went to Hampshire as a UMass student and joined the five college slam team, and transferred while I was on that team. It’s kooky how it happens, when you find those people, you realize that you didn’t have that before. I had something lovely in many ways, but that type of intensive, “I can’t fall asleep until I share this poem with you. And you can’t fall asleep until you hear it.” The intensity and joy in that was different. The teammates were from all five colleges, and that community became very strong for me. The way that I feel about that community was, I’m sure that when people were around James Baldwin, they were like, “this person is a trove, an international treasure,” and there are folks that I’ve met on the team who I felt that way being around them.

What fuels your passion on a day-to-day basis?

Sometimes I'm dry. Always having my mind attuned to the fact that I might write or I might create something, just that simple fact feels exciting. Another thing that I think of is our human connection. How crazy it is that we are here in the first place? It sounds psychedelic, but it's actually crazy. If I have awareness of that fact everyday, that we are on a spinning blue dot, when I think of that, I am filled to the brim with poems. I feel so fundamentally perplexed at the thought of just being here, that I can get caught up with bills and all that stuff, but when I just take a second to just feel the weight of that and the lightness at the same time, it opens everything. I don't have to ask for inspiration. We are made of it. It's everything.

It's weird for me to think that, "I have to pay this medical bill, but I'm on that teeny tiny dot," that they are someway equally as real. I think that's at the heart of my writing, that both of those statements are true.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Original photo essay by Seher Sikandar

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Georgia Anne Muldrow And Dudley Perkins Speak On The Funk, Black Power And Spirituality

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Georgia Anne Muldrow And Dudley Perkins Speak On The Funk, Black Power And Spirituality

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After a heavy string of releases beginning in 2006 with her debut Worthnothings, Georgia Anne Muldrow eventually signed with the California based label, Stones Throw. Her husband, label mate and artistic partner Dudley Perkins (a.k.a. Declaime and former Madlib collaborator), both left the label in 2009 and went on to release music via Mello Music Group. Most recently the couple ventured off on their own in the creation of record label SomeOthaShip, a fitting title for their new music. Together, the pair released an initial full-length collaboration in 2007 with The Message Uni Versa under the collective name G&D. While they have followed up with other side projects and one-off collaborations (Georgia produced the entirety of Declaime’s 2011 LP Self Study and then linked up with Madlib for her own solo record Seeds the following year), the duo finally returned under the G&D moniker this past May with The Lighthouse.

In many ways, The Lighthouse airs out the couple’s most recognizable signatures: Georgia’s incessantly funky production, her meandering vocals, Dudley’s almost awkward rawness on the mic and more generally; their shared, somewhat oddball metaphysics. Our conversation launched almost immediately into Dudley explaining music’s inherently spiritual role (it’s “a nutrient”) and its recent fall from grace in the mainstream. In their music and in conversation, it’s easy to pinpoint some of the couple’s more out there musings, but in either case there’s an undeniable sense of understanding and passion about their work and life in general.

Can you explain your take on the function of music?

Dudley: Music is a very powerful tool, vibrations. Our bodies sort of function on a vibratory level, you know. Music rides on air, it’s something you can’t see. The divine things, the things you can’t see are very vital to human life. And music actually rides on these vibrations, on air, so it actually makes it a nutrient. It can actually tune you in or tune you out. We know the cats in the military [with their bombs], the murderers, the hired killers, when they go kill these kids and stuff like that, they actually listen to music to hype themselves up, you know? Or before people go do boxing or go do sports or other activities, there’s like a theme music popping off.

So I think, we’re just trying to play a part in the higher vibratory theme music, through all this bull-crap that’s going on in music. A lot of our brothers and sisters that are asleep through this music, a lot of the people that put them to sleep are [musicians] ‘cause they’re awarded for ignorance so they keep doing what they’re doing. But a lot of youth are waking up now, they’re not going to follow their fathers, uncles and mothers and their aunties and stuff down that road of dark music, music that has no place on earth.

Where do you see the Black Power movement in 2013, particularly within the context of music and musicians?

Georgia: For me, I feel like when a mother, a Black mother, carries a child in their womb, that’s Black power, you know? Black power is prevalent within every human life, but it’s just us in the societal construct who would be identified as Black, because we’re all of African ancestry, it’s a proven fact. It’s just basically, how Dudley was saying, you can Google a website that’s for elementary school students about African culture, you can go into a library and they’ll say “what is the instrument that comes to mind when you think of Africa?” The first instrument that comes to mind when you think of Africa is what?

The drums.

...it’s an energetic thing, if I’m in a conversation with somebody I’m not just gonna be cussin’ them out and then expecting them to love me, you know? So why would you cuss somebody out on tape and tell them that they’re broke and I’m rich?
— Georgia

Georgia: The drums right. Even a fool could recognize that that’s the heartbeat of our cultural expression. Then, let’s use that same tool that reached everybody, use it in the way that it was intended when it first got revealed to this planet. Because they had drums that could bring the rain, drums that could heal the sick people, drums that bring young boys into manhood and young girls into womanhood. We don’t have that in a prevalent level culturally in this country. And this is throughout the diaspora, there’s a lot of folks that go without these rites of passages [like] “now you are a man, now you are a woman, these are your responsibilities, these are your gifts.” We don’t have that, a lot of that was taken away, the drum was taken away We’re just a continuation of that metaphor really, it’s an energetic thing, if I’m in a conversation with somebody I’m not just gonna be cussin’ them out and then expecting them to love me, you know? So why would you cuss somebody out on tape and tell them that they’re broke and I’m rich?

The government talks to us from the TV, I don’t want to be like them. I don’t want to be like Obama. I definitely don’t wanna be just a source of entertainment when people are hurting, laughing is good but it’s better if someone can feel like a true healing from the inside instead of just a shallow laughter that distracts them from the problem. I rather if somebody is gonna laugh at what we’re doing it’s like an “aha” laugh, like “I’m finding it, I get it.” I’m not here just to be that entertainment and be that Betty Boop or that minstrel show kind of thing ‘cause we don’t think about those things in our daily conversations with people we love. Our conversations with people we love are about what tools do we have that we can further liberate the minds of our people, the hearts of our people, the physical bodies of our people, that’s our daily conversations so naturally it’s going to bleed into the music.

One of the things I was actually going to ask you about was about African cultural continuity and rhythmic continuity in particular, you already kind of answered my question.

Georgia: It’s really deep because Black folks is more African than they give themselves credit for, especially here, a lot of people really hang tight onto the “I’m African-American” and they really hang tight onto that. You’re just African, you’re living in this place but you are an African person, you know? I think one of the gifts of the diaspora is that we are not holding onto a nationality, we’re holding onto our genetic codes, our genetic memories and things that are within us that are very internal and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s very powerful. That’s why it’s been looked [on] with a lot of disdain and there’s been a lot of pain caused on people who claim that.

You can say Jamaican pride all day, Panamanian pride, Ghanaian pride and everybody will love it and even the White folks will eat it up. But when you say Black pride and you say Black power and you say Black music, a lot of folks shy away from that because it’s intimidating.
— Georgia

You can say Jamaican pride all day, Panamanian pride, Ghanaian pride and everybody will love it and even the White folks will eat it up. But when you say Black pride and you say Black power and you say Black music, a lot of folks shy away from that because it’s intimidating I think out of feelings of guilt that people have. When people want to put our struggle on the back burner and just look at countries and different things people do in the name of diversity, and when there’s something that unifying it puts people in fear because a lot of us have been breastfed on that colonial agenda and we don’t even know what it is. A lot of folks can’t even identify it within themselves but that’s the reason why people turn their nose up when you say “Blackness gives me power.”

We got the words going but at the same time it’s a vibrational thing, so even if somebody’s turning up their nose to a song like that, the vibrations is still going in there like medicine through their cells, through their eardrums, gotta process the music and it’s gonna leave some residue of some medicine in their brains. And that’s what we’re getting to ‘cause we’re living in a day and age when there’s a complete inundation of just jiveness, just straight up [shallowness]—either people that’s arguing on reality TV, causing destruction, chaos.

The basis of Black power is to understand who we are, what it is that we have, the things that make us unique, the things that make us strong. So that we can go further without fear, because fear is based in lack, fear means that you think you lack the strength to handle a situation.
— Georgia

The basis of Black power is to understand who we are, what it is that we have, the things that make us unique, the things that make us strong. So that we can go further without fear, because fear is based in lack, fear means that you think you lack the strength to handle a situation. When we go through life with a lower percentage of fear you’re more powerful, you know what I mean? And that’s really our aim, just to get people less afraid of themselves and to loving themselves and appreciate who they are.

It’s a spiritual battle, balancing your spirit in this society in this day and age is very real. If you have kids—you know we have kids—you see it clear and presently, the danger that they’re in. This is the way we pray, this is the way we meditate, this is the way we can recharge, just to make this music. And it’s a blessing that people like you call us asking us you know what’s behind this. Those are the side-effects, people embracing the music and buying the records.

So Georgia at some point you said “everything you do is gonna be Funky,” where does Funk fit in or how does it bring it all together?

Dudley: Well all music is Funk. I don’t know about Celtic music.

Georgia: Celtic got some Funk.

Dudley: They got a little bit of Funk?

Georgia: They probably got a little Funk in the Celtic. [Laughs]

Dudley: All music is Funk, it’s just when it’s done right it’s Funky.

Georgia: I always see the Funk as a manifestation of order within chaos. Because we live in a time that’s very disorderly and very offbeat, the adaptation of that environment into a new [way] of order. For me, when James Brown came with that whole philosophy of the one, of everything being on the one. You hear a song like “Make it Funky,” it’s a bad song but at the same time you hear a very militant vibe because everybody is in step with one another. And it’s like that’s the funk. Funk is very deliberate. It’s like this order that can’t be shook within any environment.

I was thinking about it, as a fan of Funk music but also just coming into this conversation that Funk isn’t just an aesthetic designation, there’s some energetic aspect to it as well.

Georgia: Absolutely. Yeah in anthropology you look, the roots of the word “funk” go very deep depending on where you go on the continent of Africa. It all comes back to Africa, you know. In Kikongo funk means to let loose spirit.

Oh wow I didn’t know that.

Georgia: Yeah and then if you go into the Wolof language “funk” means respect, to respect. If somebody has the funk on them they are respected. Another expression of funk is, you know, if you have exerted effort and you are sweating like literally to the funkiness, you have exerted that effort and work to the point that the funk is on you, and it’s merit.

Also, when you disrespect the Funk, that’s not Funk...you can’t disrespect your ancestors, the women in your life, women on Earth, you can’t disrespect your people, you can’t use it for vanity, you have to use it to heal or to create that Funk...
— Dudley

Dudley: Also, when you disrespect the Funk, that’s not Funk. It actually takes away steps from you, a few notes you’ll lose when you disrespect the Funk. That’s like disrespecting what people call God and stuff like that. You can’t disrespect your ancestors, the women in your life, women on Earth, you can’t disrespect your people, you can’t use it for vanity, you have to use it to heal or to create that Funk that Georgia said at the end of dancing and stuff like that. True Funk will have you dancing.

Georgia: Yes.

Dudley: But they got it twisted. They trying to funk with the Funk.

Georgia: It’s just like how you see beautiful movements like the Black Liberation Army, the Black Panthers and you can go further back to organizations like the Mau Mau and the Chimurenga, you know, these kinds of things. There was always some kind of agent there that tried to be an opposing force to that movement that was camouflaged in the rhetoric but the intention was completely different and you see the effects of that. And the Funk is the same thing, the cats that knowingly abuse [it] and choose to put the words of negativity and disunity and chaos into the Funk, those are people that me and Dudley consider as jive, completely part and parcel with whatever you want to call it, COINTELPRO, Patriot Act, you know, colonialism. Trying to get people’s mind to think in lack.

Alright last question, Georgia I read something where you said “you need to chart some spiritual territory in the realm of computer music,” we’ve talked about this on the site before that music made on the computer can incite some kneejerk response that’s it’s not real or organic, so what did you mean when you said that?

Georgia: That’s a very good question because it’s a dialogue I have with my folks all the time. And we stay in dialogue about that and the whole analogue versus digital and the kind of mind game that people try to play on folk that it’s different when there ain’t really no difference. It’s your mind, it’s in your mind.

You gonna hear me repeating myself a lot because at the end of the day it goes from feelings that you have, feelings of empowerment versus feelings of lack. So when you’re on the computer and you got these feelings of lack going on, you know like you want to quantize every single little thing, quantizing means like the beats your programming are corrected by the computer, the computer is thinking for you. You’re not trying to customize no sounds [or] find your voice, you know? So that the computer can be your tool instead of you being the tool of the computer. Anything that you’re doing, whether you’re a writer, a painter, in any aspect of the world or just as a person, you need to find your unique voice because we’re all made uniquely.

For me I don’t see it as no different thing, I’ll get on the drum set but I can make the computer sound like the drum set I can’t afford. For me I like computers because they free me of a lot of limits, and the only limit is what’s coming through me.
— Georgia

For me I don’t see it as no different thing, I’ll get on the drum set but I can make the computer sound like the drum set I can’t afford. For me I like computers because they free me of a lot of limits, and the only limit is what’s coming through me. The environment that I’m very privileged and honored to have is with the ancestral rhythm. And they using me to do this music so even if I was on a rubber band on a corner, they’re gonna use me to do whatever I gotta do.

That’s my whole thing, I feel like a lot of the dance music is a beautiful thing because it got this tribal sound but I think at the same time it would do good for folks to really do their research on the music of the world instead of just kind of assume a one dimensional aspect of tribal music.

You talk about binary code, that ain’t nothing but rhythm. That’s a hand [on] and a hand off of a drum, that’s the way I see it. Even furthermore, a lot of people have made correlations to Nigerian or West African divination having a lot to do with the creation of binary code. We have this diviners that have either shells or nuts and they cut them in half, you know, and depending on which way up or down it’s a whole program, it’s a whole story and how they can go on to correct the things in their life. So this computer thing is older than just like a CPU. When I look more into what computers are and what they’re capable of it’s right in step with throwing shells on the diviner’s board, it’s the same thing. It’s a beautiful honor to be a part of something that’s so old and not going away and will never die which is music, it’s an honor for us to be a part of that because it ain’t going nowhere.

Words 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.

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Jennah Bell: Visceral Music

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Jennah Bell: Visceral Music

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.

...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...

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.

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.

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.

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.

words by Boyuan Gao

Photos by Seher Sikandar

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Akua Naru on Performing, Living Abroad, and the Creative Process

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Akua Naru on Performing, Living Abroad, and the Creative Process

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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 Aflameon 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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Introducing...Charly & Margaux

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Introducing...Charly & Margaux

Charly + Margaux

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.

Presented by A Love Supreme Production

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:

Video + Editing by Taf Chiriga of A Love Supreme Production Art Directors: Jahan Mantin + Taf Chiriga Interview: Boyuan Gao + Jahan Mantin Photo courtesy of Charly + Margaux Original music compositions by Charly + Margaux

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Oddisee Works.

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Oddisee Works.

Oddisee in Sudan

Lounging in his Brooklyn-based home studio, smartly dressed, smoking shisha and rocking some vintage frames, Amir Mohamed (aka Oddisee) looks every bit the dictator that he sometimes jokingly imagines himself being.  Hours away from embarking on an epic, month long journey to Sudan, Oddisee was kind enough to sit down with me, smoke some cardamom shisha, and wax poetic about navigating the industry while still producing the music that matters to him.  Too often, I find that music heads don’t get the opportunity to hear the voices of their favorite producers in regular conversation.  So here he is.  Raw and uncut.  And please, don’t mind the noise from the hookah pipe.  I promise you.  It’s not a bong.

For more about Oddisee, peep his website. Interview by Malik Abdul-Rahmaan

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Feature Interview - El Curandero--Music of the Healer

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Feature Interview - El Curandero--Music of the Healer

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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?

Rico's play-by-play of each track will answer some of these questions.  

How did this EP happen?

This EP is kind of an awakening for myself again. It happened because I was re-acquainted with the Aztec dancers that I used to practice with before we moved to New York several years ago.

Tell me about Aztec dancers.

The Aztecs and the Mayans have traditional dances in their cultures. A lot of it is ceremonious.

One of the Aztec dancers was curating a show at the gallery, Dimensions of Indigenous. There was one day at that location to submit something.  I didn't think I would ever put these songs out, but decided to go for it. I got a listening station; a rocking chair that I put gods eyes around. I put these songs on a cd, placed some headphones up, and put up instructions that said "Please sit down. Wrap this blanket around you. Rock in the chair, and listen to my music." I made some cds to sell there, then I said to myself "what the fuck? Put out an album!" It was such a blessing. Those songs would probably still be in my hard drive if that exhibit didn't happen. The whole thing took me 3 days to put together.

Habla Indigena: Track 1

The first song is just all natural indigenous instruments from Mexico. I used to go to Mexico every year with my family, and would always see the natives play their music with clay flutes, and other instruments made of clay and skin. It was fucking dope and beautiful and would always match the environment. There was always something very healing and spiritual about that.

You're an instrumentalist, but also a producer. How did you first get into the more technical aspects of music?

I started out with a 4-track, a drum machine and cassette tape to song write and record my ideas. I got into DJing in ‘99, when this club opened up and they hired me as a DJ and a promoter. The club was based off of multimedia and I didn't even know how to use an email back then. The owner wanted me to report to him through the email, so he gave me a computer and showed me how to work it, and he ended up being my mentor as far as digital production goes.

How on this album do you negotiate between the organic sounds and the technical aspects just mentioned?

For the EP, the digital aspect of working on it was me trying to create soundscapes with lots of feeling to it, but would also match with the melody. That was my attempt to bridge those two worlds and create a balance. It seems like today, people don't really have the patience to go and learn an instrument. They want to go get a computer and have the whole world to them with sounds right there in front of them. It seems like it takes more energy from a person than giving energy to them. All of the electrical aspects of it: your screen killing your eyes, or the power--it zaps your energy, even your posture; the way you're sitting in a chair, and you're not moving. When you play an instrument or sing you're creating your own energy through your bodies, because that’s what our bodies do.

What’s your advice to musicians trying to strike a balance?

If they choose the digital path, I would tell them to just create music that is going to make them feel good, and make other people feel good, because that's what music is supposed to be about. I feel like a lot of music coming from the digital world is very harsh. They can come up with all of these crazy sounds now, but they can be really painful.

Sacred Voice: Track 2

A lot of times when you are trying to find your spirit, it's like you have to go through some shit--you find the light in the dark. This was kind of a transcendent piece--me trying to search for my own spirit where I had to do this chanting and get myself in a zone, and go through this journey to find out where I was. It’s kind of  like if you meditate, and you didn't realize how far away you were from yourself.

I made that song in the past two years, and a lot of that was due to working at The Open Center and taking the sound healing course, because I was never into chanting before. I wanted to take it to a sort of darker place to see how it would make me feel. It's kind of an experimentation, and I also brought in the Nigerian Udu drums on that track. Those are made out of clay, and are supposed to reflect water, to give the song a water balance to it.

What do you think you were you trying to overcome personally?

I don't know what specifically I was trying to overcome in the song. It could have been the chanting and the singing, because I don't sing for shit. This is my first time putting my voice out there.

Soul Luna: Track 3

I actually wrote that song for my older daughter Issa when she was first born. Her original name was Soul Luna, and then we changed it. As far as the influence of them, I really think about how music and frequencies are going to trigger one's spirit and really how it's going to make them feel. For Issa, that song was my interpretation of her coming from the divine and her whole spiritual journey to here to earth, coming through her mother Sarah, and coming out here. If that was a movie it would have been her song score.

What motivates you creatively? What’s your flow like?

It definitely changed after Sarah and I had our first baby. Before we met, it was music all day everyday. I was a full-time DJ and musician and I was always trying to work on music. Once we had the baby, everything kind of slowed down, and eight years later, my productivity kind of comes in spurts. Back in Minneapolis, I’m DJing a lot again, and doing gigs. As far as sitting down and writing, it doesn’t happen as often. When it does happen I feel like I can go a few days and just knock it out.

I love how you said it "changed" and didn't assign a judgment to that. 

My family is really important to me. When I write, a lot of times I think of how is it going to work with Sarah. We try to make our projects so that we can make a living doing it.

Shaman’s Dream: Track 4

Shaman's dream was imagined like a score. The way that I write music is like I'm scoring a movie in my head. Visually, Shaman's Dream is the shaman going on his vision quest. Rhythmically how the track starts off is--he's getting in his trance and slowly, once he is able to let go of his spirit, his spirit just soars. It's like he is flying into the sky, seeing his visions come to him. It ends out with him going back to where he came from.

Does music play a big part in your spirituality?

It's the number one for me. I feel like I actually got taken away and forgot about that, especially when we lived in New York. 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.

Canela: Track 5

That song is actually 10 years old.

Well it's new to everyone else. 

That's what I love about music. To me pure music is timeless. I did that song before I even met Sarah. That song was just more about gratitude to the simplest things. I used to wake up and my grandpa would always have coffee on, but it would always smell like cinnamon because Mexicans like to put canela sticks in coffee. The song is just talking about the feelings of those little things, the smell of cinnamon, eating fruit in the morning. Those things were so special to me.

How do you feel now that the EP is out in the universe?

It was really a blessing. It was also great that I was able to just make it happen, because normally I am not able to make shit happen like that.

Why not?

I'm so unorganized, and the biggest procrastinator, and I have mad fear of putting my music out there.

That doesn't sound unfamiliar to me at all, and in fact, it's brave for you to even say that. Now that you found the courage to put this out, what advice would you give to folks about putting their work out there?

I realized that I used to idolize other producers  because of their success of accomplishing and getting work out there. I would say, just do it! Dont think about it too much. Just make sure it's on point, and it ain’t sounding all shitty. Just put the stuff on Soundcloud and call it a day and share it on Facebook. That's where it's at now. Nobody is going to the store and buying a cd. It's all online. It's download nation.

Do you feel like now that you've released this work out there, you are energized to do more?

Definitely. I just don't know how I'm going to do it--like putting a new track up once a week. I noticed it helps a lot of musicians that just keep putting their work out there every week. That's how they build their name. At the same time you think of artists who have albums that you still sit down and speak about, they might have had a year or two years between albums. I think there are two different things. I think you can put your work out there all the time to help you start getting into that mentality of releasing stuff, like releasing your art. I also think there's something in taking your time and taking the patience of putting something that you are going to put all of yourself into.

Maybe it's about striking a balance?

Yeah...

Buy ElCuranderoas a holiday gift to help mellow your family out, or maybe yourself. I've used it for meditation for the past week, and it's really done me wonders. Follow Cultura Love on Facebook, andTwitter. All photos by © Sarah White for Fotosforbarcelona

 Words by Boyuan Gao

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