How Musicians Are Evolving the Legacy of Resistance

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While some embrace the combination of art and activism, others might see it as diluting music’s impact or, at worst, serving as a distraction from otherwise mediocre work. Perhaps the argument’s core question always has been a philosophical one: Can art exist independent of the artist? For Alexa, the answer is no.

“There’s something about being an artist that, to me, means reflecting the times,” she said. “You can’t really have music without expressing what’s happening in the world.”

TO REFLECT THE TIMES ALSO MEANS reckoning with whose perspectives are pervasive enough to reflect. Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah uses his platform to excavate experiences that have been buried under the weight of what he views as a singular, intentional narrative.

His music takes a critical look at American storytelling. But rather than pitting the haves against the have-nots, his The Centennial Trilogy (Ropeadope/Stretch) and Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (Concord) question which stories have been told, which have not and why.

“There’s a new generation being forced to have to deal with these issues again because they weren’t adequately addressed the first time,” he said. “We don’t live in a space where all of the perspectives that exist in my community are allowed to [voice] their narrative. None of the stories out of those communities are viewed as valid just by [virtue of] their proximity to brown people. They’re almost always forced into these singular narratives that paint the entire community with one brush, and then you’re constantly in the space where you have to fight that.”

Adjuah contends his elders worked to ensure their community’s children had means to document their experiences, as a matter of life and death. Coming out of that lineage, he willingly takes on the responsibility of mentorship. Sitting on the boards of the nonprofits Guardians Institute and New Orleans Center for Creative Arts Institute—both focused on supporting area youth intellectually and creatively—allows him to continue the familial legacy of empowerment he experienced as a child.

“New Orleans is an environment where people are being undereducated, so they can be a labor class,” he said. “When you’re seeing that from a child’s perspective, you’re not confused about the fact that someone is going to have to do that work.”

Part of the community empowerment includes reteaching, and Adjuah aims to correct what he views as an inescapable yet false narrative around sound: an assertion that the music—his music, and that of his peers and ancestors—comprises African rhythms and European harmony.

“Anyone playing the music knows that that’s absurd,” he said. “If you go to Bamako [Mali], into the barrio there and listen to them play, their traditional music sounds frighteningly like the blues. The core of the music is West African music. We all know this. And that’s not a statement to diminish other people’s contributions to this music; what makes this music valuable and beautiful is its ability to take people who come from disparate cultural groups and put them in an environment where they can communicate together. But if you’re being honest in your appraisal of what has actually happened, when there was an intention to codify the music as America’s classical form, there was a singular narrative that was branded onto the music: African rhythms, European harmony—but that’s inaccurate.”

SAMORA PINDERHUGHES ALSO BELIEVES in uncovering stories yet to be told. In 2016, the pianist, lyricist and singer released The Transformations Suite. The interdisciplinary project combines poetic and theatrical elements with music as an inquiry into the history of resistance among people of the African Diaspora.

This past year, while completing work on his new suite VENUS—a collaboration with Jack DeBoe whose single “Inertia” recently was released—Pinderhughes dove into an interview-based campaign focused on trauma and resilience, aptly titled “The Healing Project.” Traveling across the country, he visited those who’ve experienced incarceration and detention, recording intimate accounts of their experiences. Discussing his subjects’ personal stories, their conversations invariably would turn to music. “I would tell them what I’m doing musically, and they would get excited and rap or [perform] poetry or do something artistic,” he said.

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April 2020
Gregory Porter
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