Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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Janelle Monae brings “Hell You Talmbout” to San Francisco

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The current #BlackLivesMatter/ #SayHerName/ #SayHis Name movement has been compared to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a time when African Americans practiced social assembly and civil disobedience to put an end to racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws. The freedom rides, rallies and marches immortalized in PBS’ “Eyes on The Prize” series were set to a soundtrack which included anthems of social protest, including the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gon’ Come,” and “We Shall Overcome.”

Five decades later, Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” gives credence to the comparison by supplying the nascent movement with its own anthem. The song itself, released last week, has been called “visceral” by NPR, but it’s much more than that. The song’s sparse arrangement—it’s just percussion and call-and-response vocals—harks back to the sanctified roots of Black American music, the field hollers which predate jazz, blues, rock, funk, house, and rap. But the power of the song comes from the repetitive mention of Black lives lost, mostly at the hands of police—in the recorded version, they include Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Miriam Carey, Sharonda Singleton, Sandra Bland, Tommy Yancey, Jordan Baker, Amadou Diallo, and Emmett Till.

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The juxtaposition of arrangement and message suggest a cultural continuum as serpentine as the Mississippi river, a context in which the souls of black folk never change, although the environment in which the field hollers resound has shifted from rural slave plantation to highway chain gang to modern-day, urbanized city—bright lights and all. “Hell you Talmbout” takes the listener back like the movie “Sankofa,” reminding those with ears to hear that the liberation struggle is not only very real, but its lifeblood is literally the death throes of  innumerable murdered brothers and sisters, extinguished by the long shadow of the dark side of American history.

Monae performed the song on the Today show on August 14, but her speech about #BLM was reportedly cut short.  No biggie; her response to corporate America restricting her message was to take it to the streets. Currently on tour with her artist collective Wondaland, Monae has been connecting with local activists at every stop, lending her celebrity presence to the cause of justice. To her credit, she’s seemed less interested in self-promotion than in building with an activist community who share her ideological leanings.

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This past Sunday, prior to a show at SF’s Independent, Monae and Wondaland were the guests of honor at a demonstration/rally against “police terror” in solidarity with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network . Also present were the families of Alex Nieto, Oscar Grant, Pedie Perez, and Oshay Davis, as well as supporters of transgender victims of violence including Kandis Capri, Ashton O’Hara, and Elima Walker. More placards were visible in the audience, bearing the names of Alan Blueford, Ramarley Graham, Michelle Cusseaux, Nate Wilks, and many others. Each of the families of police victims present were given an opportunity to speak, to mourn, to lament, to call for justice. And the Black transgender community showed up to make the point that their lives mattered as much as anyone’s. Another group, calling themselves the Last 3%, bemoaned the whitening of San Francisco due to the disappearance of its once-healthy Black population, now reduced to a single-digit demographic. There were also performances, including drummers from Loco Bloco and a conscious/political rapper who delivered fiery lyrics in the vein of Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

The highlight was a ten-minute version of “Hell You Talmbout,” preceded by a brief statement by Monae. “What we see right before our eyes is the unity that’s happening right now. There’s so many different shades that we’re all looking at right now, we’re coming together. We don’t believe in a red state or a blue state. This is a purple state. It’s all together.  I send my condolences to everybody’s family, everybody’s loved one that’s here today.

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“We created a tool, because we believe that sound is our weapon. And silence is our enemy.” With that, she introduced “Hell you Talmbout,” adding, “we commend everyone on the frontlines, protesting, day in and day out, and we want you to be able to use this song for whatever community. It doesn’t just plague one community, but it’s all of our problems. So join us as Wondaland, as we sing this song that we have given to you the people, as well as ourselves, to remind us that we have to keep speaking up.”

The energy in the 24th St. BART plaza was electric as Monae started out by name-checking Maya Holm, Aiyana Jones, and Sandra Bland. “Say Her Name!!! Say Her Name!!! Say Her Name!!!, Say Her Name!!!, Say Her Name!!!, Say Her Name!!!, Say Her Name!!!,” Say Her Name!!!,” the entire crowd—which looked to be several hundred people—shouted. More names followed:  Nate Wilks, Sean Bell, Alicia Walker, Alex Nieto, Oscar Grant, Sharonda Singleton, Ramarley Graham, Pedie Perez, Alex Martinez, DeWayne Ward, Fred Hampton, India Clarke, Oshay Davis, and David McCarter.

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The names themselves hold power, adding a directness to “Hell You Talmbout” which the vaguely-worded liberation anthems of past generations lacked. One might say the song journeys even deeper into ritual tradition than even Sam Cooke or Mavis Staples dared at that time. It makes for an interesting dichotomy, advancing the methodology of social protest music while maintaining a stripped-down, retro sensibility. The fact that Monae and Wondaland are doing this all over the country makes it even more fluid, since at every stop, different names are said.

After the song concluded, Monae led a peaceful yet vocal procession through the Mission which felt like a civil rights movement is supposed to feel – minus the direct antagonism of Alabama police dogs or Oakland tear gas. Being alive, being visible, being vocal, and being in solidarity with a movement which is growing larger by the minute was a good feeling.

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Kev Choice: Love and Revolution (album review)

Kev Choice

Revolutionary: Kev Choice

Everyone’s talking about how K.Dot (Kendrick Lamar, for the unhip) just reinvented the hip-hop wheel with his new album, which drops the same day (today) as Kev Choice’s latest, Love and Revolution. It says here, however, that an equal amount of praise is due to the Oakland pianist/bandleader/composer/emcee, whose third full-length album is destined to be a classic, although it’s doubtful Choice will be trending on FB or sell platinum units.

Choice comes through with a solid effort which is topical, relevant, conscious, highly musical, adventurous, fearless, groovy, intelligent, mature and community-oriented (maybe even family-friendly, if your family enjoys shutting down 580 as much as BBQing at the Lake). While K.Dot can afford to enlist the services of pianist Robert Glasper, it’s worth mentioning Choice can play any note on the piano Glasper can play. No, there’s no gimmicky dialogue with a dead rapper to get tongues wagging, but Choice is far from a lyrical slouch. His musical skills were already beyond reproach—he holds a masters degree in jazz, is a bonafied classical pianist, and digs deep into funk and R&B—but it took him awhile to hone his rapping technique to perfection.

On earlier efforts, like the single “Definition of a Star,” Choice seemed to be aiming for KMEL airplay which never came, while holding back his musical gifts. But last year’s excellent Oakland Rivera broke that mold with forward-thinking tracks which raised the bar for hip-hop musicianship. Oakland Rivera also hinted at the lyrical butterfly Choice was cocooning into, particularly on the Gil Scott Heron-esque “Crazy Illusion,” which eschewed me-first braggadocio for poignant sociopolitical observations on gentrification and the changing nature of Oakland, and the hooky yet substantive “That Life” (recently treated to a club-melting remix by DJ D-Sharp).

With Love and Revolution, Choice doubles down on the conscious content, using today’s murky racial politics and growing community response to perceived systemic injustice as inspirational fodder for some ridiculous lyrical fusillades, which sounded unbelievable a couple of months back, when he debuted the album one memorable night at Yoshis. He might not be as quotable as Kendrick, but he’s not all that far behind.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc.

Choice’s “Revolution” refers to flashpoints like Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, which have resonated nationwide, resulting in DOJ investigations and counter-resistant viral movements like #BlackLivesMatter. However resonant the response to Ferguson, the fire this time really began with Oscar Grant five years ago. Given that context, it’s only natural for Choice to address those topics, in an extremely Oakland kind of way. How Oakland is the album? There are instrumentals named “Oscar’s Revenge” and “Blues for (Alan) Blueford.”  Most of Choice’s supporting cast is local; there are zero throwaway cameo tracks featuring big-name artists for the sake of featuring big-name artists. But rather than a minus, that becomes a plus, allowing Choice to concentrate on substance, not superficiality. The result is a sense of cohesiveness and collaboration missing from many of today’s celebrity-studded albums – Love and Revolution is perhaps best described as a family affair which furthers Choice’s individual musical vision.

Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Movement Music: Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Content-wise, Love and Revolution is arguably a “street” album, albeit an extremely jazzy, soulful and progressive one which imparts its messages without being overly ghetto  — one hopes it will be played in the ‘hood as well as at non-profit organizing rallies. But while protests, marches and rallies have informed Love and Revolution’s content, the album’s righteous indignation—anger might be too strong a word for it—is well-tempered by a drive for innovation, creative juice-tapping, and a need to create beauty, even in an uncertain, unfair world. Choice is mature enough to realize that revolutionary militancy must be balanced by passionate love, and smart enough to figure out the two together are unstoppable.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc. Well-placed instrumental interludes help to pace the album without bogging it down, giving the vocal-heavy tracks “Room to Breathe” – to paraphrase the title of one of the interludes.

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The album opener, “Feel the Love” (featuring Viveca Hawkins) bookends the track it segues into, “Gone Too Far,” setting up the love/revolution dichotomy which underscores the remainder of the disc. The combination of Choice and Hawkins is a potent one; a simple piano riff anchors the song, which swerves between soaring neo-soul expressions, down-to earth lines (“As long as justice escapes us, we live for the struggle/we keep holding on”), and a near-symphonic arrangement complete with crashing cymbals. Sampled TV news soundbites introduce an element of tense realism on “Gone Too Far,” which finds Choice commenting on police brutality and community protests “from Oakland to Ferguson, New York to Palestine” over a guitar-driven melody. “Fist up, hands up, stand up,” Choice repeats, adding, “we ain’t gon’ take it no more.”

Choice’s outrage is channeled into a jazz-fusion eulogy on the aforementioned “Oscar’s Revenge,” which sandwiches the energy-lifting “So High” (featuring Netta Brielle) around another instrumental, “Compatible,” which in turn segues into the single “My Cause” – whose lyrics fuse the love/revolution dichotomy into a single purpose (“ride for you like you was my cause”).

Lyric heads get treated to a showcase of verbal dexterity on “Noose”, which continues the social commentary and includes a blistering verse by Locksmith, as well as the super-duper soul vocals of C Holiday. A sampled monologue from the sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” goes on a bit too long – one of Choice’s few missteps – before giving way to “Another World,” which features HNRL’s Trackademicks and 1-O.A.K. (who supplies the mind-elevating hook, “when it all sets on fire/ for tonight brings truth to the light”).


1-O.A.K. brings truth to the light

Perhaps the album’s best song, though, is “Movement Music,” another posse cut which showcases some of Oakland’s finest talents: Jennifer Johns, Ryan Nicole, Antique, K.E.V., and Aisha Fukushima. The uptempo pace goes well with the song’s lyrical themes of rhythmic uprising. Each guest slays when it’s their turn, while Choice takes a swipe at commercial radio: “they say we’re not hot in the streets/ but every time I’m there, you are not in the streets.”  Ouch. An exclamation point is added on the following track, “Young Oakland Interlude,” which literally features the voices of the next generation, chanting “jobs, peace and justice, if we want the dream, it’s up to us.”

After another instrumental, “Meet Me At The March,” Choice returns with “Daddy,” a heartfelt dedication to his daughter, Anya, which solidifies the “love” theme. The album closes with the melancholy solo piano track “Ballad for Blueford,” whose sad notes spotlight Choice’s composing skills.

When it’s all said and done, Love and Revolution accomplishes what every album’s objective should be: to be a soundtrack for our lives. Undoubtedly contemporary, there’s nothing especially trendy or faddish on the entire disc, which means it will remain relevant, as long as its themes continue to resonate. And while this album loudly screams “Oakland,” it’s worldly, sophisticated and nuanced enough to escape the trap of regional limitations – providing one has a chance to hear it.

Love and Revolution is available for digital download here.