She Don’t Give Up

The French Legation is one of the the oldest buildings in Austin.  Built in 1841 atop a hill about a mile north of the Colorado River and a mile east of the site of the eventual state Capitol, it offered a space of respite from the muggy river and the bustle of the city streets for the French delegates eager to recognize Texas as its own republic after its recent succession from Mexico.  The space and the area around it were not originally meant for black and brown people, but East Austin started to become a neighborhood for African American and Mexican American families from 1928 onward, as the city compelled people of color to relocate there from the downtown areas.  And then that changed.

The Pitchfork day party on the Thursday during SXSW inadvertently paid heed to the complicated histories of the surrounding area.  Since the late 1990s, the neighborhood had been gentrifying; by the time I first visited in 2012 and then moved there in 2014, the eastern parts of 11th and 12th Streets situated around the highways were largely devoid of the black families that once populated the space.  As I sat reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for the first time in between sets, a stranger walked by me and commented, “It must be interesting to be reading that in this space.”  The ghosts of racism inherent in both America in particular and imperialism at large hover over the space.  Looking at the lineup for the day, I am almost shocked that there are no acts of only white men on the lineup for the Pitchfork party.  In its early days, Pitchfork came under heavy criticism for seeming to only cover music by white male (and sometimes female) rock acts—and in this way perpetuating the erasure of black people from the history of rock music. [These days, I am continuously pleased to find pieces about and/or written by queers and people of color on the website.]  Like the neighborhood of Central East Austin, Pitchfork must constantly grapple with the challenge of reinserting the people of color removed by the forces of capitalism and white hipsterdom.  “It’s white supremacy,” Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz will declare during the band’s set at the start of the Thursday party.  “[That] makes Pitchfork in the grasp of some bands more than others.”  For the day, Pitchfork seems intent on trying to challenge this.

After a beautiful songwriter/rock set from the people of color-heavy and genderqueer-appearing trio Vagabon, I wander back over to the main stage for Jamila Woods’s set.  For all the acts at the festival that I’ve yet to see/hear in person, this is the one for which I’m most excited.  Combining politically-charged yet soulful vocals with hip hop- and r&b-tinged guitar, bass, keys, and drums, Woods’s Heavn was easily one of my favorite albums from 2016.  Sharing members with fellow Chicago native Noname’s band, their set is the musically tightest of any that I experience at the festival this year.  Yet even in their excellence, a sense of isolation pervades their set.  Near the end of their thirty minutes, the faint keyboards and slow drumming signal the transition to Woods’s song “Lonely Lonely.”  

The performance at the Pitchfork day party is similar to the above one from the Stereogum showcase.  While the instrumentation in “Lonely Lonely” remains at a fairy steady pace and volume, Woods layers her vocals at the chorus for emphasis and extra volume.  At the start of the second verse, Woods sings, “I put a sun in my lamp/ I post-it note on my mirror/ So I may love myself/ So I may be enough today.”  The words mark a moment of simultaneously strength and vulnerability in the song—strength in admitting that she’s trying to overcome all the shit and vulnerability in admitting that she’s struggling.  These words have always sat heavily with me whenever I’ve heard them.  For extended periods of time during my three years in Austin, romantic and intellectual loneliness has been the thing I wake up and go to sleep with—and ultimately channel into my writing.  So, it is a lot to hear that sentiment reflected back at me through the power of Woods’s incredible vocals and the mood of the song’s instrumentation.

But this song isn’t necessarily for me—or at least not written with me as its top priority.  The other songs that Woods showcases during her set put the psyche and lived experiences of black women at center stage.  While her song “Blk Girl Soldier’ is lyrically, vocally, and musically intense, certain lines jump out more than others: “We go missing by the hundreds/ Ain’t nobody checking for us/ Ain’t nobody checking for us;” “They want us in kitchen/ Kill our sons with lynchings;” “Yeah she scares the gov’ment/ Deja Vu of Tubman.”  On stage at the French Legation, the loneliness of which Woods sings has many layers.  With references to “freedom fighters” Rosa [Parks], Ella [Baker], Audre [Lorde], Angela [Davis], Sojourner [Truth], and Assata [Shakur], Woods reinserts the black women who have been erased from mainstream versions of history.  On stage at the Pitchfork party, Woods is a rare black woman singing about the bitterness of black life with the sweetness traditional to the soul genre.  Her individualized loneliness that she experiences while staring at the mirror therefore has both historical and collective implications, including everything from histories of slavery, Jim Crow, and other kinds of anti-black oppression to the contemporary collective realities of black women being underrepresented across the board, particularly in music.  From my position of white privilege, I connect with this particular black woman’s loneliness, even as I recognize that I cannot ever completely understand what she is feeling.

~~~

I waited four hours at the SPIN day party at Empire Control Room on Friday for Kelela’s set.  After hearing her perform at Fader Fort on Saturday last SXSW, I wasn’t sure how this performance would go.  On Hallucinogen, Kelela’s voice soars over incredibly smooth (and some people would say 1990s-inspired) synthesizer and drum machine sounds with a loudness thats cut in and out of the EP’s equally smooth production.  At her performance at Fader Fort last SXSW, her vocals were often much lower than the instrumentation coming from her DJ’s setup, causing her voice to disappear into the air at some points in the set.  At a much smaller and more intimate space this time, Kelela’s vocals and the synth, etc. merge to create an affective atmosphere that encourages both attentive and immersed listeners.  With the help of soft read, blue, and yellow lights that flicker throughout the 40-minute-long performance, the mood is set.  We in the audience glide along the waves of sound and vibration until Kelela changes directions and lets her voice go higher and higher (which she typically doesn’t on her albums) during each song’s bridge or outro.  This is not just hearing the songs performed verbatim as they have been recorded on album; this is a sensory experiencing of her music in a emotionally present and embodied way.

Before transitioning into “Gomenasai,” Kelela pauses for her only monologue of the afternoon.  She begins, in the same style as at Fader Fort last SXSW, by saying, “Some of you don’t know who the fuck I am.”  She stops, lets this sink in, and then continues:

I have one mission today.  People think r&b is this simple genre.  I’m here to show you otherwise.  The range, breadth, depth that exists in [r&b] has fucked up every genre.

Her commentary is a short, yet profound, introduction to one of the most boundary-pushing songs on her EP: “Gomenasai.”  Interpreted by Stereogum as a song about, “The way sex can turn combative as relationships fall apart, as if the people involved are trying to break through whatever numbness they feel toward one another,” the song is a viscerally uncomfortable felt reminder for those of us in the audience who have been in that situation before.  But, as often happens in the live setting, the song also takes on a triumphant and transformative air as it signals towards a futurity beyond the numbness.

After Kelela sings, “I ain’t playing around,” the drum-clap beat amps up intensity with Kelela’s vocals.  As she sings, “Put your hands up” (trailing her voice on the “up”), the chorus launches into the song’s first major drop.  Out in the audience, I plunge along with it (into the memory of angry sex—and into the beat as sex), only to be pulled back out when all the instrumentation drops out as Kelela sings, “You’re my bitch… tonight.”  In this song and in this moment of the sexual encounter, she is the one in control—of herself, of the sexual encounter, and of the movements and emotions of the crowd.

In her track-by-track commentary of Hallucinogen for The Fader, Kelela shares that watching 20 Feet From Stardom, the documentary about black female backup singers, inspired her to writer “Gomenasai.”  Contrary to the feeling of it, Kelela actually wrote the song from a place of powerlessness.  She explains,

It’s so crazy how nameless and faceless [they are]. I’d never processed how many white men in popular music used black women’s vocals. I never noticed [it’s] the back-up part that I’m singing [along to] in the song, or the part that’s so recognizable. And all the dude is doing is yelling over it. It’s this literal representation of how I can feel sometimes. The American psyche can’t really process black women, especially without a major label behind them.

Through discussing the invisibility of black female singers in pop music, Kelela also indirectly addresses her own sense of isolation as a black female r&b singer on a small label dabbing heavily in electronic music.  In the age of an increasing blurry mainstream/indie divide, where does highly electronic r&b music fit in?  Where do black women fit?  Where is the female—and non-misogynist—version of The Weeknd?  Can we even imagine one?  While Tinashe and Kehlani are respectably powerhouses in their own right, the only black female artist doing something even remotely similar to what she is doing is Solange on A Seat at the Table (as evidenced by her collaboration with Kelela on “Scales,” buried all the way at track 20 and the near end of that album)  Like Jamila Woods, Kelela expresses that vulnerability through lyrics and vocals.  But unlike Jamila Woods, she does so through a vibrational narrative of domination and submission—and through the dynamic of loud-soft synths and pulsating drum machines.  She takes on loneliness—and racism—vibrationally.

~~~

During last SXSW, when the rise of Donald Trump still seemed a thing of fantasy, Kelela talked with The Fader before her set at the Fort about the state of both pop music and American culture at the moment.  It is chilling to read her words again one year later:

What Donald Trump represents to me is a sickness that we haven’t dealt with: the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all the other dumb shit that continues to exist… We have not dealt with racism on a global scale; we have not dealt with white privilege.

Although Kelela is not on the bill at the Thursday Pitchfork party at the French Legation, I feel the weight of her words there.  And as with BLM, black women are once again leaned upon to do a disproportionate amount of this labor.  Before Kelela’s set at the Friday Spin day party, Chicago hip hop artist (and friend of Jamila Woods) Saba performs a set to a crowd that sings and dances along without missing a beat.  In the VIP directly in front of my center stage spot as far as I can get in the GA audience section, throngs of white people imitate stereotypical notions of black dance and gestures to the sounds of Saba’s (very solid, for sure) set.  They all clear out once Kelela takes the stage.  Who wants to hear a black woman sing along to some intense synth and drum machine music and give a soliloquy on the radical potential of r&b near the end of that?  But when Kelela takes the stage, I notice that there are suddenly all people of color standing in front of me in the VIP section.  And I additionally notice that I am the only white (albeit also queer) person standing in the first row of the GA section, a reality that I quietly register before dancing along/with myself to every single song that Kelela gives us during those precious 40 minutes.

Throughout the day parties I attend at the festival (She Shreds, Fader Fort, Pitchfork, and SPIN), I notice a pattern of black women artists inserting themselves into a city where women of color have been increasingly pushed out.  Some would say that this is the story of any city in America—and of any tour that passes through it—right now.  In New Orleans for a few days before the music portion of SXSW begins, I take notice of where I see and hear black women taking the stage.  Under the care of friends/scholars who think about, write about, and breathe brass bands, I am brought to a neighborhood club in Treme to experience the all female and black brass band the Pinettes on Friday night and then back out there for my first second line parade out in on Sunday afternoon, where I watch black women dancing and marching along to the music of the seemingly all male brass bands.  At High Ho on Saturday night with my dear friend from Austin who has since relocated back to Louisiana, I dance through all of the feelings bubbling up inside of me to the sounds of DJ Soul Sistah.  While still in New Orleans, I begin to think about how black female singers (Lauryn Hill, Janet Jackson, Donna Summer) were some of the first people in my life to make me feel less alone.  And then I realize that this has been part of my personal entrypoint into my dissertation project all along.  In a different way than my queerness or my having grown up surrounded by people of color, it’s experiencing these black female artists burst through the loneliness and create something beautiful that makes me passionate about my work.

I just hope that my writing can help bring attention to the amazing music they’re making.

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