What better way to open our African American Music Appreciate Month edition than new releases from two legendary groups. On their first album in 20 years, The Last Poets’ continue their tradition of setting politically charged poetry to music on Understand What Black Is. For funk fans, Medicaid Fraud Dogg is the first new release in 38 years from George Clinton’s Parliament, reinvigorated through a line-up of young musicians.
Sacred and classical offerings include Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson’s 13th album Keep Pushin’, young South Carolina native Kelontae Gavin’s debut album The Higher Experience, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s live recording I Am Reminded, the choral group Gloriae Dei Cantores’ recording of God’s Trombonesbased on the poems of James Weldon Johnson, and the debut album Inspirationfrom Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
Before Sugar Hill Gang released “Rappers Delight” in 1979, marking the first hip hop record in history, there was The Last Poets. The Harlem-based group performed politically charged poetry over a musical backing of bebop, funk, and demonstrative solo percussion. Along with other famous poets such as Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets laid the “ground work” of the hip hop genre. They branded their art as “Jazzoerty,” a combination of music and spoken word that worked together simultaneously.
The Last Poets were and are a highly politically engaged group. “The Original Last Poets” were formed May 19, 1968 in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. They chose May 19th as a way to commemorate the assassination of Malcolm X, three years prior. Because their personal ideology was more in line with Malcolm X’s approach to civil rights, May 19 would became both their founding date and a political statement that continues to drive their music and spoken word art.
Understand What Black Is marks the 50th anniversary of The Last Poets and is the first project they have released in 20 years. The reggae driven album, courtesy of Brit producers Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty and percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, is fused with messages that pertain to the state of black people in America, both in the past and as it relates to the present. Group members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan celebrate blackness while also providing political, philosophical, and religious perspectives on issues with being black in America and within the diaspora. “Understand What Black is….the breath you breathe….the sweat from your brow…Black is love…Black is humanity…the source from which all things come.” These are words from the title track, setting the tone for what is to come.
“Rain of Terror” is one of the most politically charged poems on the album, where Abiodun Oyewole accuses America of being a terrorist—“being mean and nasty to those who treated him kind.” He goes on to talk about the violent nature of America and its treatment of black people and the outside world. “Though shall not kill…that’s not a part of the American dream, because to kill is a thrill they love to show on the TV screen.” This line in the poem harkens to the ways in which black people have been abused on live television during the evening news almost as if it were a normal and acceptable mode of television performance. It is not unlike America to use the death of black bodies as entertainment. This was a form of entertainment in communities in the rural South during the early 1900’s, where white Americans would bring their families to picnic like settings to watch the hanging and public shaming of Negro bodies. Oyewole’s critique on America is that at its root, the country is violent. During a time when fingers are often being pointed toward Islamic countries as being politically, economically and socially corrupt, The Last Poets beg the question, “Is America not guilty of being these things for the last 400 years until the present day?”
“How many Bullets” is a poem that speaks to the ways in which black people have endured despite the violence they have encountered in America and within the diaspora. “Took my drum, broke my hands, yanked my roots up right out of the land and rattled my soul with Jesus.” This track represents the resilience of black people in the face of trauma. Despite being stripped of their religion, their home land, their drums, and their ancestral tongue, black people both retained self and created new identity. Oyewole speaks to both the idea of retention and creation through his discussion about death, viewed through an African rooted lense, where life and death are fluid and not separated. “They shot Malcolm and all they did was multiply his power…they show King and black folks got stronger by the hour.” He also questions the use of religion, particularly Christianity, viewing it as a tool to keep black people in line both during and post- slavery.
“Is there anything not sacred anymore…freedom, justice, honesty…All being devoured by Western imitations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is drowning out the tears of deception.” On “We Must Be Sacred,” Umar Bin Hassan speaks to the ways in which our world is shifting and changing into an evil place where love and tenderness are becoming taboo topics instead of practice. He claims that we love the product but we don’t care about the person who has created the work, nor do we listen and/or interrogate the things they say. He questions if we are too far gone to be able to elicit real change. He does not, however, claim defeat. “The phoenix will come from the flames this time, there will be no ashes to ashes. Love must be there when the Dust clears.” People must try to begin to love one another again and practice tenderness. However time is not a power so tender that “we could wipe this savage onslaught from our minds.”
The Last Poets conclude their album with the “The Music.” Oyewole celebrates the black creators of music with the line, “I am the music, the sound of life all round.” He furthers his Afro-centric ideology with the line, “I gave the world song,” which connects all things in life, including music, to Africa’s historical past. “I come from mother Africa where music is how we speak… the drum is my heart beat.” He then goes on to praise African American musical influences, which permeate around the globe. However, as Hassan asks in “We Must Be Sacred,” are people engaging the music and the culture or just buying into the product at face value, not caring about the creators?
May saw a semi-surprise release of a new album from George Clinton’s legendary Parliament, the group’s first in 38 years. The expansive, 23-song Medicaid Fraud Dogg clocks in at an hour and forty-six minutes, and every second is imminently listenable.
While the group keeps groove at the center of its music, this ain’t your parents’ Parliament. This iteration of Parliament is not staffed by the regulars that longtime listeners might expect, such as Bootsy Collins and the late Bernie Worrell (though Fred Wesley does make an appearance on trombone on “Type Two”), but by a group of young gun musicians that prominently features Clinton’s grandson, vocalist Tracey “Tra’zae” Lewis-Clinton. This line-up does not hamper the group’s groove, but it does change it.
Medicaid Fraud Dogg contains some classic P-Funk grooves on tracks like on “69” and “Insurance Man,” but much of the album is far more influenced by contemporary hip hop. In fact, it seems like this album reflects Clinton’s listening to artists who previously listened to him. “Backwoods” is a trap-inflected song that listeners would probably be more likely to hear at a club in Atlanta than on an intergalactic voyage. “Loodie Poo Da Pimp” shows Clinton’s influence filtered through Snoop Dogg, then Kendrick Lamar, then back to Clinton. The album’s best moments embrace not having to sound like Parliament but choosing to sound like Parliament. “I’m Gon Make You Sick of Me” is an old-school deep-in-the-groove Parliament track, featuring Scarface (as ‘Dr. Feelgood’) rapping, while “Antisocial Media” is a deconstructive interlude that flirts with free jazz musical textures to express postmodern angst. Both songs feature classic elements of the P-funk playbook filtered through the past 30 years.
Will Medicaid Fraud Dogg satisfy listeners who long to collect every deep cut from Parliament’s 1970s heyday? Probably not—but the album would likely be pretty boring if it were simply a regurgitation of the group’s classics. Rather, it represents a reinvention of George Clinton, an artist who is learning from those he influenced and creating some great new sounds while doing it. This album succeeds precisely because of Parliament’s flexibility and the malleability of the group’s format—Medicaid Fraud Dogg demonstrates that it is possible to teach an old Dogg (in this case, the group of musicians bearing the name Parliament) new tricks.
Jazz saxophonist and composer Darryl Yokley pays homage to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky on his latest project, Pictures at an African Exhibition. While Mussorgsky’s inspiration for “Pictures at an Exhibition” came from artist Viktor Hartmann, Yokley collaborated with London-born artist David Emmanuel Noel on his similarly titled work. Drawing upon themes of the African Diaspora, Noel created original paintings inspired by each of the album’s 13 tracks.
During an interview for Occhi Magazine, Yokley said he drew “inspiration from African art and music, jazz music, classical music, as well as the artwork of David [Noel]” in the composition of “this jazz symphony.” In the same interview, Noel stated, “As an avid jazz fan, my work is produced in a studio, where the music is the backdrop, influencing every stroke of a brush and fusion of colours on each canvas. The paintings are my visual interpretations and dialogue with each track.” Regarding the thematic material he added, “I think it’s particularly important, when we discuss the African Diaspora and exploit mediums we do control to fully understand the continent’s people, its history, influence and the world’s interdependence on a landmass, with over one billion people. The capturing of a continent’s milestones, from the celebration of life and execution of cultural creativity, to human struggle and emancipation of a diaspora, needs to be told in an amalgam of ways. Music and paintings serve each other well in exploring how we react emotionally to the album’s theme.”
Yokely has been performing music from Pictures at an African Exhibition for the past four years with his band, Sound Reformation, featuring pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Wayne Smith Jr. The programmatic suite opens with the brief prelude, “First Sunrise,” marking the “dawn of humankind” in Africa. Following is “Migration,” an exploration of populations moving within and beyond the mother country. Yokely’s opening theme on this track is played in C, which he calls “the key of the earth.” This harmonious and carefree intro, enhanced with classical-style piano riffs, becomes increasingly agitated as the track progresses, with an ebb and flow signaling shifting populations that never return to their point of origin. “Ubuntu” and “Stories of the Village Elder” paint a rich sound collage while exploring African themes and rhythms, accentuated by Curtis’s kalimba-styled piano ostinato.
The music takes a darker turn on “Ominous Nightfall,” as drums signal the approach of those seeking human chattel. Seguing into “Hunting Natives,” the band’s tight harmonies, sharply articulated attacks, and excellent solo turns combine into a masterful performance. “Birth of Swing” is another highlight—a wonderful slow and bluesy dirge drawing heavily upon New Orleans’ jazz traditions, with guest Nasheet Waits on drums. While this track celebrates the contributions of African American musicians, the painful beginnings are also expressed through the clanking of chains added to Smith’s percussion arsenal.
Going forward, Yokely’s thoughts return to the motherland on tracks such as “Echoes of Ancient Sahara” sprinkled with Arabic motifs, the mournful then harrowing “Genocide March” which reenacts the Rwandan and Sierra Leone genocides, and “Cry, the Beloved Country” which moves from voices oppressed to freely articulated melodies resplendent in Yokely’s sax solos.
Closing with “New Sunrise,” the album takes an optimistic turn built around major chords to express Yokely’s “fantasy” of an end to “warfare, racism, classicism, sexism, and all other dividing ideologies and practices.”
Blending music with art while building on the overall theme of unity, Pictures at an African Exhibition realizes Yokely’s overall goal of “creating a work that shows how we as a human family have more in common than our differences would lead us to believe.”
When you have a band name that combines Orca, “the sophisticated, mysterious, intelligent killer whale,” with Stratum, a way of categorizing or layering members of a group—one would expect a certain level of sonic diversity. This is certainly the case with Orcastratum’s eponymous debut album, recorded live at Dean St. Studios in Soho, London. Blending jazz, blues, classical, African, and “UK left field” musical traditions, the London-based group aims to transcend the predictive qualities of mainstream music. Led by producer and songwriter Glen Scott on keyboards, other members of the group include Ralph Salmins on percussion, Neville Malcolm on acoustic bass, and Eric Appapoulay on electric and acoustic guitars.
The album opens with “Spirit of the Skog.” After a brief intro hinting perhaps at fog shrouded forests, the track switches to an up tempo jazz tune featuring master Senegalese musician Solo Cissokho, who artfully intertwines kora melodies and vocals. “Unexpected Relations” is true to it’s word, contrasting classical idioms on the piano against a driving percussion rhythm and ethereal vocal overdubs. Swedish vocalist BERG is the featured guest on “Hallelujah Ironically,” along with Binker Golding, who adds to the contrasting sections with an extended sax solo. Despite its title, “Wizdoom” is an upbeat, piano-centric contemporary jazz tune with lush flourishes and perhaps only a hint of foreboding.
For many, the highlight of the album will be “No Need,” featuring guitarist Eric Bibb and gospel singer Shaneeka Simon. On the intro, Bibb’s lightly plucked guitar ostinato seems to mimic the kora from the opening track. As the song builds, Bibb joins Simon on vocals and the tone becomes dark and urgent, the accompaniment more ominous. Singing “no need for the fussing and fighting my friend,” the musicians bring the song to a powerful climax.
Though only five tracks, Orcastratum is an impactful debut that only hints at the group’s complexities, but certainly fulfills Scott’s “age old quest to inspire myself and others without borders.”
Haitian singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun—son of Theodore “Lòlò” and Mimerose “Manzè” Beaubrun of the Grammy-nominated Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans—does it again with a sensational and thought provoking album, Ayibobo. Released three years after his acoustic album Vilnerab (2015), and six years after Project Haiti (2012) with Zing Experience, Ayibobo weaves together Haitian roots music with rock and roll and reggae, which Beaubrun refers to as “Roots/Blues” music. While this album demonstrates Beaubrun’s compositional concepts and the socially conscious lyrics that fans have grown accustomed too, Ayibobo feels a bit more personal as Beaubrun recounts his lived experiences while reflecting on the encouraging words his mother instilled in him.
The title track “Ayibobo” narrates the circumstances in 2004 that lead to his fleeing Haiti to New York. Beaubrun reminisces on the comfort and strength he felt while remembering what his mother taught him, ‘ayibobo.’ The Haitian Creole term means ‘hallelujah’ or ‘amen,’ but ‘ayibobo’ also carries cultural connotations that can be interpreted as a form of elation. By using this word, Beaubrun demonstrates how one word can strengthen familial and communal ties within the global Haitian community, while paying tribute to Haitian cultural practices.
On “Rise Up,” Beaubrun leans more towards social activism, calling for people to “rise up and be free” while using reggae—a Jamaican musical genre known for its political commentary—as the musical vehicle for his political activist endeavors. We cannot overlook the Haitian folkloric influences that are heard throughout this album, specifically the Haitian drums (tanbou) on “Naissance” and “Elizi.” Sonically, we hear the Haitian polyrhythmic patterns that provide the underlying foundational groove and pulse. Moreover, these songs echo the mizik rasin (roots music) tradition and Haitian mythological themes that are commonly associated with it.
Ayibobo is a phenomenal illustration of Beaubrun’s artistic brilliance. As listeners, we are treated to the wonderful collage of musical sounds while experiencing the exhilarating spirit and cultural sentiments of the Haitian community. Furthermore, this album serves as an exemplar of music and activism. But above all, Ayibobo is a heartfelt expression of a man’s love for his country and community.
Ginkgoa, the swing-inspired electronic music duo, was created when native New Yorker and vocalist Nicolle Rochelle ran into producer Antoine Chatenet in a Paris club. Chatenet’s experience with French electronic music paired seamlessly with Nicolle’s love for swing dance music, resulting in the creation of a high-energy genre that the duo calls “Future Swing.” Their latest EP, One Time, amps up their signature sound with more emphasis on the electronic and trap influences that their audience can’t get enough of.
One Time is an edgy, party-starting EP composed of five tracks that the duo composed, wrote, and produced themselves. Songs such as the gritty “Don’t Give a Damn” were created in a hotel room during Ginkgoa’s Chinese tour through what can best be described as trial-and-error, then debuted at their next show. According to Nicolle, “we make adjustments based on our concerts and what we feel the audience may want more of, then the creative juices start flowing.” On “Boy Bounce,” their first official video single for the album, the duo demonstrates their unique blend of jazz, rap, and feminist electro pop music combined with swing and bounce dance moves:
It is no surprise that Ginkgoa’s music is a hit with the crowds. From Chatenet’s infectious beats and perfectly-timed drops to Nicolle’s unique swing-style vocals, Ginkgoa has developed a distinct sound that is driven by their audience. Ginkgoa’s upcoming US Summer tour, if it’s anything like their previous performances, is sure to be a high-energy experience that you won’t want to miss.
Brooklyn native Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson is one of the leading voices in contemporary gospel quartet music today. The 3x Stellar Award winner and Billboard top 20 chart topper began singing at a young age with father, Phil Johnson, who was the founder of the group, The Spiritual Voices.
Johnson earned the nickname “Wonderboy” as a child due to his amazing melismatic approach to singing along with his distinctive vocal timbre. Johnson has also helped to transform the gospel quartet genre through the use of modern gospel music production sounds and techniques, while maintaining the integrity of traditional gospel quartet music, due to his incredible production crew.
On Johnson’s 13th album, Keep Pushin’, the artist goes well beyond his gospel roots to feature various styles of music. The title track and single, “Keep Pushin”, is a highly inspirational piece with an upbeat funk groove that encourages people to have faith in God and keep moving despite the obstacles that life often presents. Reminiscent of the famous Impressions’ message song “Keep On Pushing” that became a part of the fabric of the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson’s song reveals that people are still dealing with political, social, economical and, one might add, spiritual issues. As Johnson encourages in the music video, one can strive to transcend these issues by facing their problems and not giving up on themselves, others or God.
On the gospel ballad, “God’s Gonna Do It,” Johnson reassures listeners that with faith and patience “God will come through” and perform the unbelievable and impossible task set before them. Johnson projects this same message through his homage to R&B artist Morris Day and the Minneapolis sound, using Day’s popular song “The Bird” as the foundation of “God Is Able.” The background vocalists sing “Hallelujah” during the vamp, as featured on the original song during the chorus section (omitting the word “Squawk,” of course). Johnson went back in time to 1984, utilizing the same synthesizer keyboard sounds accompanied by a “4 on the floor” driving groove. This high energy dance song encourages people to give God praise while they are waiting for their miracle.
Each song on the album features a message of hope, faith and belief in the promises of God through the versatile approach of Johnson’s modern gospel quartet sound. One may hear the traditional gospel and quartet sound, R&B, funk or soul. Each song is governed by the idea that no matter what comes your way, you can make it, with faith, determination, and praise. Johnson end’s his album appropriately with the song “Do You Know How Blessed You Are,” reminding listeners that it is simply a blessing to be alive.
In 2014 a video went viral of a young man singing the modern hymn, “I Won’t Complain,” in his high school cafeteria. That young man was Summerville, South Carolina native Kelontae Gavin. Within two years he was signed to Tyscot Records and his first original single, “Higher,” topped at #30 on the gospel charts. Now the 19-year-old Kelontae Gavin has released his debut album, The Higher Experience.
Recorded live at Fresh Start Church in Atlanta, The Higher Experience opens with the choir singing a gorgeous a capella rendition of the Donnie McClurkin song, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” just one of many beautiful and complex arrangements on this album written by Tyscot producer Marquis Boone. As the album proceeds we are graced with other gorgeous tracks such as “There’s No One Like You” and the title track, “No Ordinary Worship,” which just rose to #16 on the Billboard Gospel Charts.
Of particular note about the production of this song, as well as others on the album, is the precision and quality of the backing vocals. For a live recorded gospel album this actually makes them feel slightly over-produced. This is a very small critique but it stands out because of the passion and raw emotion behind Gavin’s delivery. With the background vocals so clean, Gavin’s passion feels somewhat unsupported.
There are many aspects of Gavin’s performance that stand out. Despite his age, he is extremely adept at his vocal style, song delivery and aptitude as well as his ability to minister. These talents are on display throughout the songs, as well as in breaks between songs such as “Ministry Moment,” where Gavin delivers messages about trusting in God with the execution and confidence of a pastor over twice his age.
Gavin has an electrifying old school sound, reminiscent of the smooth tenor of artists like Sam Cooke, but also with the gritty roar of Clarence Fountain that most would not expect from an artist this young. When hearing Gavin’s dynamic vocal ability and just the overall power and emotion behind his voice, no one could ever guess that he’s still a teenager. The Higher Experience is phenomenal and great kick off to what will hopefully turn into a very lucrative career for Kelontae Gavin.
Brooklyn may be the most iconic of all the New York boroughs, but I usually associate it with basketball first and hip hop second, not choirs. These days, however, we as a society and country need uplifting words, and where better than in song? Enter the six-time Grammy® Award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Founded in the 1970s and currently directed by Carol Cymbala, the multicultural BTC has 270 members who, for the most part, are vocally untrained. Taking music out of the church, the choir has performed at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the 2012 Presidential Inauguration festivities in Washington, DC.
I Am Reminded is the BTC’s 30th release and offers eleven tracks celebrating the power of the Lord. The album was recorded live so you get to enjoy the feedback from the audience as if you were there in church. On the opening track, “Psalm 150,” the lead singer repeats the line “The name of Jesus is worthy to be praised” again and again over great backing vocals. Perhaps the most attention grabbing track is “Jesus It’s You” featuring tenor Sidney Mochede, which could be a crossover hit. The words just suck you up and make you want to bow your head and close your eyes. Songs on the soulful side include the original ballads, “That’s Why God” and the title track, “I Am Reminded” featuring soprano Niciole Binion. Other guests include Shane and Shane, a Texas-based contemporary praise and worship duo who lead the choir in a performance of their anthem, “Psalm 23.”
The contemporary gospel tracks on I Am Reminded are perhaps more Joel Osteen than TD Jakes, but the uplifting music may help us deal with current issues such as school shootings, the #MeTooMovement, Black Lives Matter and NFL policy on players kneeling during the anthem. With the way things are currently, we could use the encouragement.