Book – Black Lives Matter & Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection

Title: Black Lives Matter & Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection
Editors: Fernando Orejuela and Stephanie Shonekan
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Series: Activist Encounters in Folklore and Ethnomusicology
Format: Book (hardcover, paperback, digital)
Release date: August 10, 2018

 

On July 13, 2013, two days after George Zimmerman was found not guilty for shooting and killing unarmed African American teen Trayvon Martin, a grassroots movement aimed to reaffirm the value of black lives in the United States was born. Black Lives Matter— the chapter based, multi-faceted movement— humbly began as a hashtag on Twitter upon the announcement of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. The hashtag and phrase, black lives matter, have been used in social media, protests, and rallies to protest against the violence and systemic racism black bodies are globally subjected to. Continue reading

Benjamin Booker – Witness

Benjamin Booker Witness
Title: Witness

Artist: Benjamin Booker

Label: ATO Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

 

Benjamin Booker’s appreciation for the historical social movements that helped shape the rock, gospel, and blues genres manifests in Witness, his second full album release following his self-titled debut in 2014. He calls attention to the modern day Black Lives Matter movement in his songwriting, connecting its relevance to the Civil Rights Movement.

Booker contemplates the possibility of death in his opening track “Right On,” an energetic soul rock song that feels like it could be played at an old-fashioned dance hall but with a heavier modern sound. Dramatically dropping in energy without losing its steady groove, “Motivation” juxtaposes the previous song, allowing listeners to focus their attention on reflections of a young Black man reasoning with his quotidian anxieties. From the sensuous aesthetic of “The Slow Drag Under” to the vintage blues pop of “Overtime,” Booker’s unmistakable vocal rasp takes center stage in a screaming whisper.

Perhaps the most meaningful feature that takes place on this album is Booker’s collaboration with the Civil Rights Movement’s musical icon Mavis Staples, who leads the gospel chorus on “Witness.” Booker wrote an artist statement about his attempt to escape the perpetual racism and violence he experienced at home and his process of writing this song during his retreat to Mexico:

I spent days in silence and eventually began to write again. I was almost entirely cut off from my home. Free from the news. Free from politics. Free from friends. What I felt was the temporary peace that can comes from looking away… It wasn’t until Trayvon Martin, a murder that took place about a hundred miles from where I went to college, and the subsequent increase in attention to black hate crimes over the next few years that I began to feel something else. Fear. Real fear. It was like every time I turned on the TV, there I was. DEAD ON THE NEWS… I knew then that there was no escape and I would have to confront the problem. This song, “Witness,” came out of this experience and the desire to do more than just watch.

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Opening with an intertwining of orchestral strings reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Booker’s performance of “Believe” may be one of the more memorable tracks on this album. It plays as a gentle and hopeful rise out of his darker experiences and fears. His lyrics promote optimism in the face of opposition: “I’ve got dreams I can touch, I’d give them everything to keep from going under.”

Witness represents a continuation of the fight for racial equality in the United States and will surely be an important contribution to the music history of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Gregory Lewis – Organ Monk, The Breathe Suite

gregorylewis
Title: Organ Monk, The Breathe Suite

Artist: Gregory Lewis

Label: Self released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2017

 

A virtuoso on the Hammond B3, Gregory Lewis (aka Organ Monk) wowed the Chamber Music America conference last year when his group performed Thelonious Monk and a few of Lewis’s own chamber jazz compositions in their signature funky, Monk-inspired contrapuntally intricate style. One of those original works, The Breathe Suite, is featured on this newly released album, performed by Lewis with members of his regular quintet: tenor saxophonist Reggie Woods, trumpeter Riley Mullins, guitarist Ron Jackson, and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons. Supplementing this line-up is drummer Nasheet Waits and guitarist Mark Ribot, who replace Clemons and Jackson on the first and third movements.

Four of the five movements of The Breathe Suite are dedicated to an African American killed during confrontations with police officers or vigilantes. With this project Lewis joins the ever growing rank of composers and musicians who write and perform as a personal form of protest: “I can’t protest, because if I protest I go to jail. And if I go to jail I can’t feed my five kids. So what I can do is what I do – I write music . . . Even if it brings joy for just a minute to these families, that’s what I can do.”

The first movement and by far the largest portion of the suite is “Chronicles of Michael Brown.” Clocking in at nearly 19 minutes, the track begins in an instrumental fog of distortion, over which the organ sounds an elegy. As the work progresses, one can’t help but reflect on the events of August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown’s body lay on the pavement for hours on end. Likewise, the music seems to portray an alternate reality, where straight ahead solos are sharply punctuated at odd moments by organ or guitar, oftentimes shifting between free jazz and funk rock like a collision of cultures. As the movement builds to a climax, it becomes more atonal, gradually fading out on a cymbal roll like a spirit rising up to heaven.

The second movement, “Trayvon,” is of course dedicated to young Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Scored for organ, guitar and drums, this track is more of a fast paced interlude, with Lewis freely riffing on the B3 and Jackson taking a brief guitar solo near the end. The trio continues in similar style on “Aiyana’s Jones Song,” referencing the seven-year-old girl shot and killed in 2010 during a Detroit Police raid. As the movement concludes, the instruments fall into a repetitive pattern, suggesting a never ending cycle.

“Eric Garner” is eulogized in the fourth movement by the full quintet. On this slow, haunting track, Lewis provides sustained chords on the B3 while the other instruments improvise, with special effects creating a discordant soundscape that has us floating through time and space. The suite concludes with “Ausar and the Race Soldiers” (reprised in the 6th track), a more straight ahead movement that still offers ample room for free improvisation and solos.

Gregory Lewis Quintet’s stated mission is “to expand upon the interpretation of jazz and create a catalogue of 21st century American originals.” In this they have surely succeeded, creating a highly original, socially conscious work inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the cycle of violence and deadly oppression which led to its creation.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

Samora Pinderhughes – The Transformations Suite

samora
Title: The Transformations Suite

Artist: Samora Pinderhughes

Label: Gray Area

Format: Digital (MP3, FLAC, etc.)

Release date: October 12, 2016

 

Although originally composed in 2011, The Transformations Suite is one in a long list of artistic projects related to and inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement.  BLM has pushed many artists to engage with questions of civil rights, police brutality, and black humanity, and Samora Pinderhughes is a leading voice in this conversation.  The 24-year-old Juilliard trained pianist and composer is already a very accomplished musician, with a number of high profile collaborators.  Pinderhughes is the musical director for Ava Duvernay and Ryan Coogler’s Blackout for Human Rights, a Sundance film festival fellow, and recently premiered a song inspired by the death of Sandra Bland at the Kennedy Center with Lalah Hathaway.  His sister, Elena Pinderhughes, is also a successful musician in her own right, currently collaborating with Common as both singer and flutist, and featured in his most recent Tiny Desk concert at the White House as well as on his upcoming album.  In fact, the two perform together in The Transformations Suite, with Elena being featured heavily on “Cycles.”

The Transformations Suite is tone poem with five movements: transformation, history, cycles, momentum (parts 1 and 2), and ascension.  It features a combination of jazz and spoken word (with texts by Saul Williams and Tupac Shakur), and draws on all facets of the African-American musical tradition, from spirituals to hip-hop.  Highlights include “Cycles,” which features a motif that will haunt you even after the movement is over.  Another favorite is “Momentum (Part 2),” which questions the status quo and refuses to be silenced.

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The Transformations Suite is an ambitious, extraordinarily timely composition, coming on the heels of another summer filled with police brutality.  The music becomes a space of both collective mourning and healing, and also imagines a space of possibility in which we get free.

Reviewed by Allie Martin