Visionary Musicians Seek Truths for the Future in a Spiritual Past

Camae Ayewa leaned into her microphone closely and uttered evocative, devastating, prophetic poetry as video of a raging fireball was projected behind her.

The electronic soundscape coming from her laptop built to a series of shrill, greasy explosions, and Ms. Ayewa — who performs under the name Moor Mother — addressed the audience in a stern voice. “We want our realities back,” she seethed. “We want our futures back.”

Later, adopting a rap cadence, she chanted: “I just want to make it clear — revolution’s everywhere.”

This was 2017, at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and she was opening for the rock band A Place to Bury Strangers. Much of the audience seemed unready for the intensity of her set, but Ms. Ayewa leaned in, berating the crowd — not performatively, not playfully, but dead-serious — demanding that people engage. In the end, they had no choice.

Last fall, at a small theater in Chicago, Ben Lamar Gay shook hand-percussion instruments; played long, low tones on the guembri (a North African stringed instrument); let loose a few simple, curling melodies on his cornet; and sang, unaccompanied, about losing his love, and about feeling lost himself. The singing morphed organically into a sensual chant, and he stamped his feet. The audience joined in, filling the room with a heaving rhythm. The sensation of many bodies singing and moving together lingered long after listeners left the theater.

Ms. Ayewa and Mr. Gay belong to a new generation of visionary black storytellers who are using words, music, electronics and mixed media to connect with a long tradition — one that calls into question the very nature of performance. Many of these young artists play various instruments, resisting the idea of technical mastery as an end goal, and see themselves as something other than entertainers. Reaching back through centuries of history, they are mapping strategies for the future, insisting on music as a collective endeavor.

Mr. Gay describes his work as a process of “dealing with folklore and history,” but also of forging ahead. “When you’re trying to find something, it is a search,” he said in an interview. “You’re thinking about the future already.”

He was raised in Chicago but found his musical voice while living in Brazil in the 2000s. “One important thing was when I was able to connect the samba man and the blues man,” he said.

Angel Bat Dawid — a young pianist, clarinetist and vocalist (among other things) whose debut album, “The Oracle,” garnered a flash of attention earlier this year — sometimes begins her performances at the back of the house, walking slowly through the crowd and singing an incantation as she pounds a drum. The practice stems from her years as an organizer of the Participatory Music Coalition, a group she founded in Chicago. Their sessions loosely resemble jazz jams, but with a more liberated, directly Afrocentric approach, drawing no line between trained performers and everyone else in the room.

“Participatory music, as opposed to performative music, is more African,” she said in an interview. “If you feel something, you can express it. You can participate.”

This type of liberated performance has a history that runs through the radical poets and performers of the 1960s and ’70s (Abbey Lincoln, Gil Scott-Heron and Nikki Giovanni among them), back to the early American stage tradition and the griots of West Africa. It owes a debt to avant-garde musicians in postwar Chicago, including the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Amina Claudine Myers. And it taps a literary tradition — including the work of Harriet Jacobs, Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Morrison — that pulled from the traumas and triumphs of the black American experience to envision a more humane future.

Ms. Dawid was raised in the church but has since embraced a more nondenominational approach to spirituality. She refers to her music as “a ministry” — an idea that resonates with the words of the poet and critic Amiri Baraka, who argued that “any historical (or emotional) line of ascent in Black music leads us inevitably to religion, i.e. spirit worship.”

Melanie Charles first experienced live music as a vessel of spiritual communion, too. The Brooklyn performer still lives in her childhood home, where her Haitian grandmother hosted prayer meetings that sent songs of praise throughout the house. “They would sing these Haitian hymns, man,” Ms. Charles recalled in a recent interview at a Bushwick cafe. “Loud and out of tune, and so beautiful.”

Encouraged by her music-loving mother, Ms. Charles studied operatic vocals and jazz flute while attending D.J. shows on the weekends, finally landing on a hybrid identity. Today she is a singer, songwriter, electronic musician and budding video producer. Her first full-length recording, “The Girl with the Green Shoes,” from 2017, featured interpretive covers of jazz standards alongside woozy originals. Relying heavily on sampling and digital manipulations, the album stands adjacent to the popular, post-R&B sound of acts like SZA and Kelela, but it draws more explicitly on a long spectrum of history, and its message-driven poetry relies less on sex and romance in its search for meaning.

“You are exactly who you dreamed you would be / And exactly who the road will lead you to become,” she sings on “Mantra.”

Ms. Ayewa’s work often tells dark stories (“The idea is to time travel through the race riots,” she says in one forbidding lyric), but she sees it as part of a movement leading somewhere brighter and encouraging, too — away from old labels, and therefore, away from the past.

“The overwhelming thing about being an Afrofuturist is that I’m not saying, this is the end, we’re all doomed,” she said in a recent interview. “I say at every show: We’re not headed toward the doomsday. I believe there is another way. So it’s about trying to get the audience to understand another way of digesting the truth.”

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