Dana Murray Offers Powerful Truths on ‘Negro Manifesto’


On Negro Manifesto, Dana Murray examines historical and contemporary racism.

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist)

Some pioneering jazz works—particularly those that address racism—are intended to cause discomfort. Classics such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Max Roach’s “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” are potent depictions of social unrest that challenge both the musicians and listeners.

Drummer Dana Murray’s provocative leader debut, Negro Manifesto (Ropeadope), follows that tradition. The music emits a nightmarish, cacophonous sensibility, marked by dank electronica textures, cinematic sweeps, skulking jazz improvisation, sampled dialogue and hip-hop’s rhythmic brio. The songs touch upon weighty issues: the incessant discrediting of blacks’ contributions to American life; layered institutional racism that undermines black people’s economic and educational advancement; the historical concepts of “house Negro” versus “field Negro”; modern-day protests against police brutality toward unarmed black and brown people; and the hypersexualization of black men. In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, Negro Manifesto is a searing exorcism that could serve as the jazz complement to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning 2017 horror film, Get Out.

Despite all of the album’s pointed themes, the music’s bristly designs came first. “I was just trying to make something that was sonically interesting, while keeping the integrity of jazz music intact,” Murray explained. “But in these times, we are so inundated with what’s happening in the world, the narrative ultimately took over. I said to myself, ‘I can’t not talk about the things that are going on.’”

Murray arrived in New York during the mid-’90s after moving from Omaha, Nebraska—a Midwestern city in which he says that racism renders itself regularly, but in subtle ways—and began performing with a wealth of talent that included tenor saxophonist JD Allen, bassist Eric Revis, pianist Orrin Evans, keyboardist Marc Cary and singer Heidi Martin (all of whom appear on the album). “A lot of it isn’t necessarily overt,” Murray, who moved back to Omaha in 2004, said about ongoing discrimination. “You have to read between the lines to find it.”

When crafting the narrative for Negro Manifesto, Murray recalled his earliest awareness of racial tensions when he was a 7-year-old watching the 1975 movie Mandingo, a drama set on a Southern plantation before the Civil War. “I probably wasn’t even supposed to be watching it,” he said. “But it was on regular television. It left such a burning impression on me. But I remember thinking the things in the movie were not real at the time.”

Memories of Mandingo resonated stronger when Murray entered high school. “I began looking at myself in the mirror and saying, ‘OK, I’m black; my walk in life is going to be different,’” he said. “As I was getting more hip to the history of this country, that movie became some whole other shit to me.”

Traces of that memory flash on the album track “Temptation,” an ominous ballad about a white woman who seduces a black man, before talking about how she was walking through the woods and being allegedly attacked (seemingly by the same man). She then whispers life-threatening insinuations about the deadly fate of the black man. Amid the #MeToo movement—and in the wake of the recent revelation that in 2008 Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted lying about alleged sexual harassment from 14-year-old Emmett Till, which led to his brutal 1955 murder—“Temptation” is all the more unnerving.

On Murray’s stirring reading of a famous country tune—here titled “Stand By Your Man (Lady Liberty)”—Amanda DeBoer Bartlett sings the song’s forlorn verses about unshakable commitment, while Allen improvises on the melody in a different key. For Murray, the protagonist in the song represents the Statue of Liberty and the strong democratic virtues of the United States, while Allen’s asides depict the actual dissonance in American society. “If [Lady Liberty] had a mind to think, she would be very upset about what she’s actually standing for, because the country is not following those virtues,” Murray said.

Brief soothing moments do occur on Negro Manifesto, especially on the gospel-inflected closer, “Alice Mae (Hope),” the title of which nods to Murray’s grandmother. The song is distinguished by Anita Jaynes’ caressing harp accompaniment and Elizabeth Kantumanou and Caron Wheeler’s soulful vocals. “A lot of the record is so dark that I had to end on hope,” Murray said. “[My grandmother] accepted everyone by the content of their character; she always taught me to treat others as they would like to be treated. That has allowed me to not be bitter about a lot of things that I’ve gone through or things that I see as a black man in America.” DB

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