Race, Vulnerability, and Musical Openness

2017 has been a year for expressing vulnerability through music.  While we could also say that about any other year in pop music, the sense of agony, despair, anxiety, and rage induced by Trump’s election is incomparable to anything else experienced in my 30 years on planet earth.  In this moment, the output of new releases has been huge: Austra, Vagabon, Land of Talk, Sylvan Esso, SZA, Lana Del Rey, Zola Jesus, Emily Haines, Torres, and Kelela, to name only what I’ve had in heavy rotation.  Regardless of whether or not these artists’ music has been politically motivated, I’ve viscerally felt the simultaneous desperation and urgency of their music while listening to them at this historical moment in time.

At the North Door in Austin two weeks ago, I walked into a performance of one of this year’s heaviest albums, Zola Jesus’s Okovi.  After moving in a more pop-y direction on 2014’s Taiga, Okovi is Nika Rosa Danilova’s return to her dark synthpop form, incorporating everything from reflecting on a friend’s attempted suicide to running away/back to the woods of Wisconsin to escape the horrors of America in 2017.  With Shannon Kennedy on violin and longtime collaborator Alex DeGroot on guitar (and all the pedals and knobs triggering all the synth stuff), Danilova emits an affect that pulls all of us in the audience into an immersive experience with her sound.  Similar to the video above, the group opens with “Veka,” a standout track from Okovi.  “Look alive for the statues, no retake/ Look alive before the worst is over, carry your legacy/ When the world becomes you/ When the story builds you in/ Who will find you there?” Danilova sings before she soars up in her vocal register to belt out “Who-oo will find you?”  After her first run through of the chorus, a well-timed drop brings the percussion to the forefront of the song.  The entirety of the set plays with this tension: the desperation of the verses/of entire songs clashing with the urgency and even relative upbeatness of the chorus/the dance-y songs (i.e. “Vessel”) positioned at the end of the set.  Wearing a Russian shawl for large swarths of the performance, Danilova maneuvers between retreating back into the insularity that birthed these songs in the first place and throwing off the cloth—and throwing herself to the edge of the stage.  Her stage presence is mesmerizing and it is on her that I mainly focus during the hour-long set.

There is a performance art element to her stage presence, which is not at all out of place at the North Door, the closest thing to a queer performance space that we have in the city.  While Danilova’s sexuality (intentionally?) remains a mystery in the press, her performance feels right at home in space where camp (or at least over-exaggeration) and darkness are frequently intertwined.  In the company of my girlfriend and a queer friend, I feel enmeshed in the queerness of the space and what Zola Jesus’s set does to further bring that out.  When the world outside doesn’t automatically make a place for us, we have to carve out our own space.  We bring in particular artists or invite certain people into a space in the hopes that they will draw a crowd where a person’s gender and sexual expression will not be hostilely attacked or questioned.  At concerts, the artist(s) lead the way with openness and vulnerability and beckon the crowd to follow.  But what about race?  Minus a few people who might be Latinx, I hardly see any people of color in the crowd.  When music is created from a place of insular whiteness, what are the limitations of the reach of those sounds?  Given what we do and don’t internalize as hardship or oppression, Danilova’s (or anyone’s) turning inward may or may not register in an emotionally compelling way.  For all the ways that I love and connect with Zola Jesus’s music, I also sense the particularity of its appeal from the crowd that night.  Perhaps this is the result of genre or the experimental nature of Danilova’s approach to music.  Nevertheless, as the group kicks off the end of the set with “Exhumed,” the frantically-paced violin parts feel like both an opening up and a closing off.

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Five days later, I have a very different experience when I journey to Emo’s to watch and listen to SZA perform.  For the first time ever at this venue, I walk through a metal detector and have the entirety of the contents of my bag combed through by security.  But as soon as I get into the venue, I walk into Ravyn Lenae and her band doing house-tinged r&b songs.  Although I don’t previously know her music (as I assume is also the case for many of the people around me), I instantly get moving.  By the time SZA takes the stage, I feel heartened to be in a crowd with as many people of color of any show I’ve attended in Austin, rivaling Kelela’s set at Empire Control Room during this past SXSW and the Janet Jackson concert at Frank Erwin Center last month.  When Solána Imani Rowe, aka SZA, comes out in an outfit fitted to the curves of her body, the crowd screams and puts up their cell phones to record the moment.  Accompanied by a keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist, SZA and her band jump right into it.  Beginning with “Supermodel” (which includes the lines “I could be your supermodel if you believe/ If you see it it in me, see it in me, see it in me/ I don’t see myself”) SZA sings and dances around the stage with a sense of openness and (albeit at times slightly awkward) comfort with herself.  When she asks, “Who was popular in high school?” before answering “Me neither” before going into “Prom,” everyone cheers.  The sharing of vulnerability creates a shared experience of the music.

SZA’s set is a simultaneously vulnerable and joyous space.  During “Hiiijack” and then during “Love Galore,” SZA runs around the stage, intermixing kicking, dancing, and spinning around, as in the above video from her performance in Los Angeles a few days before the Austin show.  As she sings song after song about getting her heart broken by shitty men, she at multiple points burst into a huge smile.  We are putting behind—or at least momentarily putting aside—all the traumatic things that stick with us and weigh us down.  Although Rowe uses the word “multidominational” to describe her music near the end of the set, the mood of the show has already been previously set by opener Lenae giving a shout out to all the “beautiful black people” standing at the front of the crowd—and then acknowledging the white people in the crowd after that.  SZA and her openers turn Emo’s into a space for blackness for the night, even as white people (like myself) also join in on the party.  To approach universal topics (such as heartbreak or sexual frustration) through the perspective of her experiences as a black woman is to bring race into the set—even as SZA is simultaneously mindful of appealing to people of all races.  Where the Zola Jesus set lands on my body as a manifestation of a heightened desperation unbeknownst to many white people before Trump’s election, the SZA set feels like something that’s been going on for a long time, due to the ways that racism and sexism intersect.  Her songs feel open to me without being entirely or primarily about me.  The tightrope walk of appealing to people with similar identities as you yet leaving something more universal for everyone else to grab onto has been a hallmark tension of people working in popular music for as long as it’s been a thing.  SZA gets this—and she does it very well.  Her set is an opening.

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