By JD Brant // Contributing Writing By Saliek Ruffin
Hip hop has come a long way since the OG days of “Rapper’s Delight.” The track was the first hip hop song to reach Billboard’s Top 40 at a time when music by young black musicians was easily misunderstood. Now, almost 40 years later, hip hop still dominates Billboard charts. Streaming numbers have nudged the genre, yet again, into familiar hybrid pop/rock territory (Does anyone remember Blondie’s “Rapture”? That’s where it all started).
At its core, hip hop is a political movement, and contemporary artists’ attempts to smash the status quo offers glimmers of hope for Gen Zers, millennials, and other lost generations. Here we’ve compiled a list of standout artists who’ve emerged victorious during the COVID-19 pandemic and have taken on social justice causes as influencers in the music industry. We will post one new artist a week throughout the summer.
Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson is her government name. Her stage name, articulated “her,” is an abbreviation for Having Everything Revealed. The Filipino/African-American vocalist and musician rose to prominence at the height of the pandemic, and has been soaring ever since.
After initially releasing music under her government name, Wilson reappeared in 2016 with the H.E.R. persona, delivering her introduction EP H.E.R. Volume 1. She at that point delivered resulting EPs H.E.R. Volume 2 (2017), The B Sides (2017), I Used to Know Her: The Prelude (2018) and I Used to Know Her: Part 2 (2018).
2020 was the year of H.E.R. She was designated for five honors at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year for her album, I Used to Know Her, and Song of the Year for “Hard Place.” In September, she sang Prince’s tune “Nothing Compares 2 U,” for the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, and during the pre-game celebrations for Super Bowl LV, H.E.R. performed “America the Beautiful” while playing guitar.
What makes H.E.R. a beautiful soul is her passion for activism. Laced throughout her discography are reflections of her beliefs. “I Can’t Breathe” was the singer’s premiere social justice song, an emphatic statement on the current global policing crisis. She also contributed a song to the soundtrack of Judas and the Black Messiah titled, “Fight For You,” last August.
LHĒON is a Neo-Soul singer from Melbourne, Australia who floats like a butterfly and sings like a bee: her May release, Full Disclosure Pt. II, is anything but boring. The EP is her follow-up to Pt. I, released in March. Eloquent Mag asked the singer about the project in full, her inspirations, and more below:
Q: Sonically, what were you going for on Full Disclosure Pt. II? Love the musical embellishments and rich tones in the instrumentation so much!
A: Thank you so much! I believe in this song’s first incarnations, it was more of a ballad and at some point also a rock vibe! When my producer Lee started re-working it for my project, he knew that it would work really well if we put that Motown drive, and spin to it. The grittiness of the drums as well as the vocals. With some really rhythmic horns and the bold organ sound…since I absolutely live for the old-school Soul music from the 60s, it was a match MADE.
Q: How do you think Full Disclosure Pt. I compares to Pt. II artistically/sonically?
A:Pt I has a modern flair, neo-soul, R&B with jazz and electronic twists, a concoction of all those genres with a pop flow. Pt. I was looking forward to my newer influences. I was able to experiment a lot with the harmonics by bringing together genres that might not necessarily be meshing together naturally and making them do that. Pt II is more “looking back” and paying homage to the music I grew up on, the old school Soul and Motown with big horn parts, heavy driving drums and infectious hooks. I got to really spread my wings within my voice and my producer pushed me, in a good way, to really go for it with these songs, no holding back and baring it all.
Q:What was the inspiration behind the track “I Hate The Way That I Love You” on Pt. II and what was recording the track like for you?
A: A relationship gone wrong. Where you put all of yourself yet getting little to nothing back. You’re committing fully because you love this person with every inch of your being but they are not capable of loving you back. Somehow you can’t leave, although you know that’s what you probably should be doing. It was incredibly cathartic recording this song because I had to channel sadness and anger I hadn’t done previously. It was one of the first times I felt I completely let it all go and just went for it…and in the last couple of choruses, I think you hear the actual desperation I felt, because the story and the lyrics really got to me.
Q: Who are your musical influences?
A: This is always hard to answer since it’s ever-evolving for me! Here are some of them: Aretha Franklin, Jill Scott, Joss Stone, Adele, Emily King, Sara Bareilles, NAO, Emeli Sandé, Frank Ocean, Eryn Allen Kane, BANKS, Melody Gardot and more!
Q: Any up-and-coming bands or singer-songwriters you love right now?
A: You should definitely check out SKŸE, he has such a beautiful way of expressing himself with his voice, lyricism and melodies. I’m in awe of him. I also think you should check out Grace May is another beautiful artists. Very soulful and warmth, when I listen to her songs I feel almost embraced. Lastly, check out Cosima Olu. She is from Sweden. I’m always excited to rep great musicians from my home country. She creates music that’s so so fresh and incredibly unique. I’m mesmerized by her voice and songs, and she produces a lot of it (if not all of it) herself!
Listen to Full Disclosure Pt. II now and tell us what you think in the comments:
The Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, NY was the portal to the rest of the world for working-class musicians in the early 1920s. A renewed interest in the club is paving the way for jazz redux.
By Jessica Brant
Buffalo, NY is a city that rumbles with age-old tradition, and because of this, progress sometimes comes at a cost. Even so, there exist enclaves of younger, ungrudging supporters, those who honor the older traditions in art Buffalo is famous for. This ecosystem of young rubbing off on old, old rubbing off on young, has contributed to the creation of a new identity for the city of Good Neighbors, or a rebirth.
This identity includes a renewed interest in jazz. At one point, Buffalo was a playground for giants—renowned jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., conductor of smooth jazz, and Buffalo Music Hall of Fame inductee; pianist and professor Al Tinney, member of The Jive Bombers and ardent supporter of the arts; and George Scott, pioneer of Buffalo big band culture and music educator. Besides the love of jazz, these genre visionaries had one thing in common: they began their careers at the Colored Musicians Club on 145 Broadway, breaking through segregation to reach esteemed heights.
Footage courtesy of WIVB
Every artistic movement has a struggle to reckon with, and in Buffalo, struggle is no different. Buffalo remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, along with Detroit, New Orleans, and Milwaukee, to name a few. It’s never a rare sight to walk down a street on the West Side of Buffalo—for example, Massachusetts Avenue—and see, quite literally, a night and day portrayal of the city. On one side, restored homes dressed in fresh coats of paint, new balustrades on balconies, new handrails on porches, and pretty gardens, and on the other, a population in turmoil; dilapidated two-story homes split into apartment complexes, ravaged by gang fights and rent spikes. In many people’s popular opinions (ask a Buffalonian), gentrifying an area is like putting a new Band-Aid on an old problem; wounds are buried for the time being, but they never really go away.
In 1917, black jazz musicians in Buffalo turned to their community to solve problems during an economically stressful period. Local 43, the all-white Buffalo musicians union, prohibited black members from joining, so these musicians formed their own union, Local 533. A social club, the Colored Musicians Club, flourished soon after. In the 50s, the CMC gained autonomy through their purchasing powers, separate from the white union, and remained a separate entity despite desegregation mandates. Today, the CMC is uniquely one-in-a-million, gaining landmark notoriety in 1979. In 2018, the club was finally listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Footage courtesy of WGRZ
Jazz would not be what it is today without the hustle and sweat of stage performers’ past; gigging and jamming were how musicians practiced and communicated with each other, swapping secrets, pushing each other to be better. For your average gigging musician in Buffalo, the club was a portal to the rest of the jazz world. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane all famously walked through the doors at 145 Broadway. The club was the ears and eyes of the world, on a national and international scale. People here didn’t know color; they just knew whether or not you could lay down some jive.
Trends in jazz hit ears here first. New styles and new ways of playing passed in and out of town. Here, big band sound had a heyday. “When I was young, I dug Grover (Washington Jr.). I dug the young guys, because they were speaking my language. There were people that were a little resistant to it (the sound we were trying to create), but later on as the George Scott Band was getting more gigs, it finally hit home with people (in Buffalo),” said George Scott, director of the Colored Musicians Club and bandleader of the George Scott Band. In keeping within the boundaries of the artform, innovators like George Scott and Grover Washington Jr. created something bigger, unchecking jazz from its default box as a snarky subgenre and placing it into an accessible groove.
Then there are those musicians, like jazz pianist Ed Chilungu, who have blended the genre with other traditionally “antiquated” styles of playing, like classical, and more ubiquitous styles, like gospel. Ed, a music performance graduate of SUNY Purchase and student of bebop’s founding father, Al Tinney, is a younger musician who has put his time in at the CMC, forming friendships with jazz drummer Darryl Washington (Grover Washington’s brother, who still lives in Buffalo) and George Scott. “In playing my solo improvisations, I try to approach it like…a combining of styles…classical harmonies, jazz, and melodic flourishes, with contemporary gospel and Christian music,” he said of his blend. “The notes, the melodies…they’re subconsciously in my being.”
Despite cuts to music and arts education and a refusal to renew music teaching contracts in schools, jazz and its offshoots are still clinging to the zeitgeist in the city of Good Neighbors; George Scott stills gigs, and eight other big bands in Buffalo join him. He’s also orchestrating plans for a youth big band program for students suffering from these cutbacks, as chairman of the Michigan Street Corridor. But worry not, a strong-willed Scott told this writer. His mission is, and always was, crystal clear: put authenticity back into the art. “Some of the best music teachers don’t get renewed contracts (in Buffalo), and sometimes schools will hire somebody who lacks the real musical knowledge to teach,” he said. “I’m working to get that young musician exposed to jazz music.”
Do you have song suggestions for the playlist or memories of the club you’d like to share? Email email@example.com.
Architectural firms are sharing renewed interest in Buffalo’s artistic past. Stieglitz Snyder Architecture proposed a $2 million renovation project that would dramatically change the look and feel of the land at the corner of Michigan and Broadway. According to the plan, now approved by the Historic Preservation Board, expanded parking, an extension to the south side of the building, and a first-floor reception space would be added to the CMC. Green rooms and meeting spaces would be added to the second floor performance space, which is also expected to receive new additions. This is a big deal for the venue, once host to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Project directors and fans of the club are projecting more legendary acts will follow in the coming years.
Editor’s Note: This music essay was submitted as a requirement for the NYU Music Industry Essentials certificate program.
Forrest, also known as sleeplessinflatland, is an abstract visual artist and beatmaker from Norman, Oklahoma. In their latest project, Precious Cargo, they pay homage to their family and friends who they once referred to as precious cargo. In this exclusive interview with Eloquent Mag, Forrest delves into their past, present, and future; talking all about their music and career.
From releasing music during the COVID-19 pandemic, to giving advice for aspiring artists, Forrest truly believes in the power of artistry. Having a somewhat conventional upbringing, Forrest finds solace in their art and is able to use it to inspire others across the globe. Primarily using Bandcamp to release their music, Forrest is able to create from anywhere and continue to grow in their art.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got started in your career.
A: Well, goodness… how does one reflect on themselves and then refract it to the unseen eye. All I’ve known is the impulses and stimuli this system of sinew provides. I live a semi-charmed kind of life, eyes half-opened, moments and lights flashing past my body. Pretentiousness aside, I adore waxing nonsensical, but in brief bursts of comedic relief between bouts of intense work periods. I enjoy working and creating, something I’ve done since I was a young child. I wanted to be a marine biologist for the longest time. One of my very first works was a painting of a giant squid, imitating the highly exaggerated, but cool old wood prints one would see in early records of the lovely creature. I lived in a world of wonder and fascination, where the grasshoppers were as big as my little arms, zipping out of the grass taller than me and grandma’s trailer, a yellow double-wide surprise where the world had left the edge of existence.
Fast forward a decade and a half later, and once again my hair was long, in braids, my mood happy, in spite of poverty and homelessness. I didn’t see it like that, I was able to create at a moment’s notice, drawing and creating to pave my way. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to get a day job through a friend and was finally able to move off the streets, using the job to fund my art and support myself for almost a decade, before purchasing driving lessons, attending broadcasting school, phasing myself out as I was doing any and all production work I could get, paying or non. At one time, my week would consist of anything from running a shift at Long John’s in the morning, PA/DJ for a local high school’s basketball and wrestling squads in the evening, then the next day I was a roadie and stage hand for a local dj company. Eventually, I was simultaneously working at a local country radio-station as a board operator/ in studio producer for their football coverage on Saturdays, along with assisting my team in general management of the old shop I had been helping to run through the years as I phased out, working still at the dj/ live production company, on top of helping out with various productions with my mentor turned friend from the broadcasting school, Brad Reed. Time passed and I found myself on the promotions staff for the local radio stations, setting up radio remotes across the state, and operating as an audio technician or engineer for live radio remotes and shows. I did that until falling ill earlier this year and am still recovering.
Q: We are excited for your new project Precious Cargo. Can you tell us a little more about it?
Editor’s Note: Precious Cargo was released in 2020, the time of this interview.
A: Thank you! Precious Cargo has been in the works for a few years since I wrapped up it’s predecessor, Loose Change, a collaboration with fellow Normanite, Narono, that’s heavy on the boombap but with experimental and ambient flavors.
Precious Cargo is a progression from Loose Change in name and concept.
Loose Change was a joke between Narono and myself, the project theme being a trip to the laundromat, that these tracks were the loose change or tokens for the trip to the laundromat, or an experience of the trip.
Precious Cargo was born as a comment I had made to an old friend, referring to them and their family as “precious cargo.” I remembered this, and it stuck with me as a natural progression. With this next project, I wanted to make progress and learn to love myself, to value myself as much as I valued others, and to show it through this audio, writing much of it over the course of a couple years while on the road, or doing what needed to be done.
Q: In the new world of COVID, the internet is being utilized by musicians very differently. Many indie artists have been speaking out against big names like Spotify, in favor of places like BandCamp. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I release almost exclusively on Bandcamp. Especially with works, such as Precious Cargo, copyright laws will not allow for this work to exist on platforms, such as Spotify, especially in its current form. I hardly use Spotify, if I’m being entirely candid. I’ve been doing this since before I began sleeplessinflatland in 2014, before I really started sharing on the internet, and I would likely be doing this in some form or fashion without it. But to say I would be where I am without it is misleading, because I can’t even begin to imagine where I would be without it, in terms of its effects on my tastes or in terms of the sheer amount of resources available online.
Looking at these payolalike items that Spotify is currently doing, I already don’t pay for a subscription, so the chances of me shelling out cash out of my pocket or setting up a budget for that seems impractical. It’s not to say I wouldn’t put my music up there, should it be appropriate, because frankly, as artists or like with any other item, you have to go where the people are… Honestly, with me only having released for such a short time, I feel open to how I can really present the experience of my work or art, even if it’s only induced by a simple crappy graphic, some choice sarcasm and jokes, then the audio. So, with this spur of release here in 2020, it’s kind of the time to try and bust out of your shells, or to buck a so-called norm.
Q: Are there any other resources, similar to Bandcamp, that could be helpful for other indie musicians?
A: So many; in my opinion, it comes down to what you’re wanting
and how much you want to do. You name the platform, there’s a community presence there, it’s just up to you to find it. Youtube is how I learned to produce (and learn tricks still), and Twitter is wonderful for networking. If there’s a platform, I’d highly suggest setting up a profile on it, whatever it is, and beginning to get to know the people there that have similar interests or goals like yourself.
For instance, myself, when I was DJ-ing and employed by that DJ company, coming from an electronic, leftfield, and instrumental hip-hop background, I would find myself running into obstacles, especially maintaining a quality live production, especially with track selection. Eventually, I found out about Tunebat and with time, I was learning with experience. I find voicing my desires or needs, especially on Twitter, seems to show great results, whatever it is, just being open has yielded wonderful results.
Q: What are some other tools and platforms you are using to sell and promote other musicians in your community?
A: Personally, humor, openness, and some organization are my three go-to’s when it comes to promotions. It’s amazing the amount of times being objective and shamelessly happy about the music I do like, and supporting it however I can, will simply present an opportunity.
Self-made videos, good and bad, definitely help, whether it’s a beat video or me turning around the camera on myself.
Lists are highly recommended on Twitter, especially to prevent the endless scrolling and resulting wasted time.
Of course, if you’re not consistent or actively interacting with other members in your community, these other items are rather hard to put into play.
I have profiles setup on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter , Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and likely others that slip my mind, but in order to tie it all together, I suggest using items like a link tree to help get the most out of a single link space.
One thing I’ve done, off and on throughout the years, is I host a segment or show I started while in school, where I would highlight friend’s music, and I always really loved doing that, so it’s something I’m definitely looking at getting back up and running.
Other items include, doing my amateur design or graphics work in a variety of styles inspired by or directly influenced by their own works, such as filming myself spray-painting as I listen, remixing someone’s audio, or sometimes just a simple stagnant image I drew, painted, photographed, along with a meaningful caption supporting them, sometimes something funny to grab a viewers attention, or even downright absurd, depending on the mood.
Q: What is something that you have overcome to get to where you are now?
A: There’s a lot I could pick from. I was homeless for several years before getting a job at the age of 19. I’ve had COVID twice this year, I was born with holes in one of my lungs. I take the philosophy of life is pain. But… My favorite is that of riding my bicycle daily on an intercity route to an old partner’s house, just pedaling along, headphones blaring, on the side of the highway.
Q: What is your favorite part of what you do?
A: When I put those headphones to check what I’ve been working weeks on and it sounds like it did before I got sick this year.
Q: What is your favorite thing you’ve worked on thus far in your career?
A: Honestly… feeding my town for almost a decade at my old shop. I may have been human, an alcoholic, and slept in often, but once I woke up and helped to open the shop… I really came to love it.
It wasn’t just me though at all. There were so many people that helped.
Now if we’re talking visual arts, it’s probably this old two-dimensional wall art installation I had in an old studio apartment of the lady getting electroshock therapy in Requiem for a Dream, that had layers I could take off that would change its appearance to suit my mood.
A close second was a series I referred to as fractal pornography that is self explanatory. But when it comes to my audio pieces, I have to say it would likely be the track “Sister,” which actually samples my little sister and her high school choir in their last concert.
Q: What inspired you to start on your music journey? How have you used that inspiration throughout your career?
A: I was listening to tunes and party rocking quite terribly during my off time when I was first a general manager. We were no good. So I kept going.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone struggling to take the plunge into indie music?
A: Just do you, don’t worry about what folks say, be objective.