Imamu Amiri Baraka – It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music

 

Title: It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music
Artist: Imamu Amiri Baraka
Label: Motown/UMe
Formats: LP, Digital
Release date: November 16, 2018

 

At the beginning of the Black Power Era, Motown Records joined other labels in producing politically oriented albums that addressed issues of critical concern to Black America (e.g., see our previous review of the book, Listen Whitey). Motown established a subsidiary label for this project in 1970, and released a total of eight albums and one single on their new Black Forum label. The rarest of these Black Forum albums—virtually unavailable for the past 46 years—is Amiri Baraka’s It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music, released in 1972. In a surprise move with little fanfare, the album has now been reissued on vinyl. Continue reading

The Last Poets – Understand What Black Is

last poets
Title: Understand What Black Is

Artist: The Last Poets

Label: StudioRockers

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: May 19, 2018

 

 

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?

Reviewed by Bobbie E. Davis Jr.

David Murray feat. Saul Williams – Blues for Memo

David Murray
Title: Blues for Memo

Artist: David Murray feat. Saul Williams

Label: Motema Music

Format: CD, Digital

Release Date: February 2, 2018

 

 

Released just in time for Black History Month, Blues for Memo is a new album by saxophonist David Murray and poet Saul Williams.  Williams and Murray met in 2014 at the funeral of the revolutionary poet Amiri Baraka, at which Williams performed a poem and Murray (who worked with Baraka in the past) was in attendance. The chance encounter led to a collaboration between the two artists, with Williams sending Murray a collection of poems to set to music.

Like Baraka, Williams is a challenging poet. He is socially and politically engaged and consistently employs images that are a gut punch to listeners. The tracks on Blues for Memo feature Williams doing what he does best, stringing together images that address topics ranging from politics to the nature of consciousness. On “Cycles and Seasons,” Williams thrives on juxtaposition of large concepts, such as dietary tradition and health to capitalism and forced labor.  “Deep in Me” takes on cosmic themes, with lyrics that consider volcanic, geologic and cosmic time in relationship to individuals’ perception of the universe.

 

On the track “Obe,” Murray and his outstanding band match dissonant bebop with lyrics that take on what Williams critiques as a cultural self-obsession, asking whether a variety of pursuits are “self-actualization or self-image actualization.” “Red Summer” is a gospel-inflected ballad about racially-influenced killings of African Americans, from the Mother Emanuel Baptist Church massacre to the wave of police killings of unarmed Black men and boys that sparked a national conversation about continuing systemic racism in American society.

Murray’s task is a difficult one—to compose an appropriate soundtrack to the complex, emotionally-charged themes that Williams adeptly addresses throughout the course of this album. Murray achieves this goal handily — even the instrumental numbers on this album are delivered with the perfect tone. For instance, the heartfelt “Blues for Memo,” a tribute to Istanbul’s jazz legend Mehmet “Memo” Ulug, is solemn and joyous simultaneously, incorporating sounds that “Memo” likely would have appreciated, including elements from blues as well as Turkish music. The latter is provided by Aytac Dogan on kanun, a middle-eastern zither.

Williams and Murray are joined by an overall outstanding cast of musicians, including Dogan, Orrin Evans (piano), Nasheet Waits (drums), Jaribu Shahid (bass), Craig Harris (trombone), Pervis Evans (Vocals), Jason Moran (Fender Rhodes), and Mingus Murray (guitar). Overall, Blues for Memo is both musically beautiful and conceptually challenging, an album best explored gradually and one which holds enough details for listeners to continually return for something as yet unheard.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Eric Mingus – Langston Hughes – The Dream Keeper

The Dream Keepr
Title: Langston Hughes – The Dream Keeper

Artist: Eric Mingus, narrator; Larry Simon, director

Label: Mode/Avant; dist. Naxos

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 27, 2017

 

There have been many recordings featuring the works of the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-67), including Hughes’ own spoken word recordings, some with musical accompaniment. Perhaps the most well-known is the 1958 MGM release Weary Blues, featuring Hughes reciting his poetry over a jazz soundtrack composed and arranged by Leonard Feather and Charles Mingus. A more recent offering was Laura Karpman’s GRAMMY Award winning Ask Your Mama, featuring her original musical setting of Hughes’ epic poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Pieces for Jazz.

Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper is more closely related to the aforementioned 1958 recording in more ways than one. Not only does it combine poetry with jazz, but the narrator is none other than Eric Mingus, the son of Charles Mingus. The younger Mingus, a prominent jazz bassist and vocalist, utilizes these talents to full effect while performing Hughes’ poetry. The music was arranged and directed by jazz guitarist Larry Simon, who founded the popular Beat Night series in New York as well as the JazzMouth festival in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to promote music and spoken word collaborations. Also contributing to the project is noted composer/conductor David Amram, who played with Charles Mingus, pioneered the first-ever public Jazz/Poetry reading in NYC with Jack Kerouac, and collaborated with Langston Hughes on the cantata, Let Us Remember, where he learned about Hughes’ own forays into jazz-poetry. When these three musicians (Simon, Amram and Eric Mingus) came together at one of the Jazzmouth festivals, they were easily sold on Simon’s idea “of making a CD honoring the poetry and the life of Langston Hughes,” and worked diligently to “honor every word that we heard and every musician with whom we [had] played.”

Rounding out the talented group of musicians is Simon’s band, Groove Bacteria, and various special guests: Don Davis, alto saxes, clarinets; Catherine Sikora, soprano sax; Cynthia Chatis, flutes; Scip Gallant, Hammond organ; Chris Stambaugh, bass; Mike Barron, drums; with Shawn Russell and Frank Laurino on percussion.

The Dream Keeper opens with a new rendition of “Weary Blues,” accompanied by Amram on piano, with Mingus alternating between recitation and singing as suggested by the lyrics:

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world / Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’/ And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

The full ensemble enters on “The Dream Keeper,” which maintains a bluesy, otherworldly feel accentuated by a Native American flute in this primarily instrumental track. Mingus is accompanied on half the tracks by a solo instrument—usually Amram on piano, while “Border Line” features Simon on guitar and “Railroad Avenue” features Gallant on Hammond organ. This serves to keep the focus on the texts, without overshadowing the power of the spoken word. The larger ensemble performs on the haunting “Daybreak in Alabama,” the grooving “In Time of Silver Rain,” and the timely “Democracy,” performed in the style of Gil Scott-Heron, using strong exclamations over a highly distorted, freestyle background. The album concludes on an optimistic note with “Life is Fine,” alternately sung and spoken by Mingus.

The Dream Keeper was recorded in 2012 towards the end of Barack Obama’s first term as POTUS, and released just prior to Donald Trump’s inauguration. If released just a few weeks later, I wonder if Simon would have changed the order of the tracks to end with “Democracy,” the opening lines of which read: “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear.” In any case, this is a first rate project. I might even suggest that Mingus’s heartfelt delivery, with its soulful timbre and nuanced rhythms, is even more impactful than the recordings made by Langston Hughes. To use a phrase from Amram, Eric Mingus knows how to realize and pay homage to “the music that is already in the spoken word.” Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing

saul williams martyrloserking

Title: MartyrLoserKing

Artist: Saul Williams

Label: Fader

Release Date: January 29, 2015

Format: CD, LP, MP3

 

 

On January 29, poet and performer Saul Williams released what will likely be one of the most challenging records of 2016.  Williams is as much a literary figure as a musical one, and MartyrLoserKing is as novelistic as it is musical, following the inner life of a hacker living in Burundi, who’s screenname “MartyrLoserKing” is the source of the album’s title.

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Unlike many “socially conscious” musicians that end up doing what is essentially the musical equivalent of “slacktivism,” Williams uses this album as a place to paint a complex and ambivalent picture of the current state of the world. He addresses the prevalence of uninformed fear on “Down For Some Ignorance,” the potential for internet-spread misinformation on the song’s musical and thematic sibling “Roach Eggs,” while expanding to more explicitly political issues including police brutality and systemic racism. Williams, an American expat, writes about the world as a terrifying postmodern dystopia, perhaps nowhere more evocatively than on “All Coltrane Solos at Once.”

The musical soundscapes match this lyrical bleakness, with drum machines that sound far away and collages of electronic bleeps and samples that are alternately disorienting and threatening.  All of this leads to the tremendous effect of MartyrLoserKing, which suggests that any remedy to the myriad problems facing humanity must necessarily start with people developing their individual, social and political consciousness.

 

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Book of Rhymes


Title: Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop

Author:  Adam Bradley

Publisher: BasicCavitas

ISBN: 9780465003471

Date: 2009




The voice of hip-hop is ringing in America, a timbre of universal discontentment that passionately depicts an often-ignored American existence. After years of evolutionary progress, it is an art form appreciated not only as a powerful social force, but also as a creative outlet with incredible musical integrity and poetic genius.

In the recently released Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop, Adam Bradley explores the lyrical mastery of rappers and the awesomely turbulent ride rap lyrics take. Split into two parts, the book discusses rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay (part one) and style, storytelling, and signifying (part two). Often quoting his favorite rappers and including examples of poetic devices used, his points are as enlightening as they are entertaining. With a Ph.D. in English from Harvard, Bradley discusses everything from East/West coast tension to the impact of Bob Dylan on rhymes and rhythm. From controversial ghostwriting to the pioneering scratches of Grandmaster Flash, the book hits all the right places for hip-hop fans and poetry lovers alike.

Posted by Rachel Weidner