Features, Music Reviews, Race + Culture

Social Justice in Music: Emerging Indie Artists of the Pandemic

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. 

1. H.E.R.

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. 

Listen to “Fight For You” here:

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Music Reviews

Single Stream Review: So Kindly – ‘The River’

By Katie Powers

Zimbabwe-based songwriter So Kindly first emerged in 2017 with his debut EP “Warmest Place,” which earned him praise for his vulnerable storytelling and warm arrangements. On May 28, he made his triumphant return to the music scene with the release of his latest single, “The River,” where he sings about the distinctly human problem of being faced with a tough decision in love and the accompanying emotional fallout that follows. The track showcases So Kindly’s earnestly charming vocals and innovative sound, which blends electronic and indie rock influences into an effortless and inviting package.

“Down by the river I lay/It all in line for the truth,” he repeats in the refrain. He sings each lyric with his whole soul and brings easy energy to the melody, which sits nicely against bright guitar passages. The track remains steady and then comes to an abrupt end, which parallels the lyrics’ themes of accepting the unknown and placing trust in ourselves, even in the face of uncertainty.

“This track is about that decision-making process internally and emotionally,” he said about the song’s message. “Sometimes we have to cut ourselves some slack and accept that we are not always in control of the way things pan out.”

So Kindly has big plans for 2021, including a return to live performances and a new set of songs. Listen to “The River” here and watch the lyric video produced by Obscura Films below:

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Music Reviews

ALBUM REVIEW: Forty Feet Tall – A Good Distraction

The best distraction can convince a person to leave their worries behind for a while and get caught up elsewhere.

By Katie Powers

Forty Feet Tall’s A Good Distraction is a gripping and fast-paced sonic journey that offers compelling storytelling and high-energy psychedelic rock with a pop-punk flare. The album explores a range of sounds and stylistic choices, but the Portland-based alternative rockers hold a steady command over every track. Perhaps most importantly, each track effectively permits its listeners to get lost in the overwhelming and sometimes defeating world detailed on the album.

Forty Feet Tall, which features Cole Gann on guitar and vocals, Brett Marquette on bass, Jack Sehres on guitar, and Ian Kelley on drums, got their start playing at venues in Los Angeles but grew into their sound in Portland, where they attended college. A Good Distraction is their second full-length release after their debut in 2014. It’s easy to imagine the possibility of this album in a stadium setting, with the frenetic energy of a live audience giving new life and power to the high-intensity tracks. 

The album is strong from the outset, with “Rain Machine,” a rocking commencement. The track features heavy instrumentals and earnestly angsty vocals from Gann, instantly situating the listener in the powerful emotional resonance behind the album. “It’s a shame that we’re awake now/I liked you better in my dreams,” he sings. It’s a delicate balance between modern punk and nostalgic rock and roll, which the group successfully maintains through the album’s journey.

“Julian,” the album’s fourth track, represents a tonal shift from the opening run. The song leans into a heavy bassline from Marquette, underscored by a punchy guitar riff, but the storytelling feels distinctly brighter. The song moves along at a brisk and steady clip, and Gann’s vocals flow as he sings about an unstable love story. Still, the track ends on a unique and mysterious note, as the group sings together in harmony and the prominent instrumentals fade away, which aligns with the unresolved themes of the song. 

Gann’s vocals steal the show on “ON/OFF,” the album’s most contemporary track. He sings in a smooth and falsetto over stinging instrumentals that come to a head in carefully controlled harmony during the refrain. After a subtle buildup, the track reaches a crescendo that breaks away from the song’s previously restrained sound. It features a powerful guitar solo that feels like a well-earned punch to the face. 

“Don’t Tell Your Mom” is pure punk-rock fun that evokes a youthful verve. It boasts some similarities to “Ex Kids,” which appears earlier on the album but this one sounds elevated and more developed. It opens with quick, twisted, and opposing guitar hooks that instantly captivate the listener. Then, during the refrain, the band shouts, “Don’t Tell Your Mom,” conjuring an utterly angsty mood. The song’s entire vocals walk a balance of talking, singing, and freely vocalizing, making the story behind the song feel urgent and the emotions immediate. 

Listen to A Good Distraction here:

Connect with Katie: Twitter

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Music Reviews

Single Stream Review: Benjamin Elias and Soul Special – ‘Reflections’

By Jake Sabers

Foreign hip hop fans are in luck: Benjamin Elias and Soul Special released their first official collaboration titled Reflections off their record label, Mad Talk, out of Tel Aviv, Israel. Benjamin Elias, born in Denver Colorado but relocating to Israel at the age of 13, and 

Soul Special, an Israeli artist and producer who left high school and went on to graduate from the Rimon school of music, add multiple layers of unique perspective and experience to their latest undertaking.

The track was mixed by Brendan Ferry, a grammy-nominated mix engineer who has worked with YBN Cordae, Lil Baby, Meek Mill and many others. Ben, Soul, and Brendan’s teamwork has paid off for this listener. A reverberated piano riff, dreamy chorus, and a deep sub bass meet each other at first listen. When the first verse begins, we’re treated to the talents of a competent emcee. Benjamin Elias’ rides the flow flawlessly.

Every element in the production complements each other. Rapid-fire but concise lyrics fit perfectly, suggesting a chaotic but introspective inner monologue over the production’s dark and dreamy sound. “Had the world in my pocket and I dropped it out of fear,” one of the opening lines is rapped. “I was raised to be a prophet, didn’t have no profit.” This rush of lyrical intensity rises along with the pulsating elements that are gently introduced to the mix, building tension and then comfort in the form of harmonizing in the back end of the track, creating the perfect storm. 

If you’re a fan of thought-provoking hip hop music, this single is for you. I am looking forward to listening to the full-length EP.

Connect with Benjamin Elias: Instagram | Facebook 

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Music Reviews

ALBUM REVIEW: Tha Capital G – ‘I Wouldn’t Trade Being Black For Anything’

By Debesh Suvat

As an ally in the struggle for equality and against discrimination and bigotry in all forms, perhaps the most beneficial thing I can do is listen and learn from the struggles of others. I Wouldn’t Trade Being Black For Anything (produced by UrBan Nerd Beats) from Tha Capital G (out of Boston, see also Giddy) is a great piece of listening for other non-black allies who could do well to sit down and pay attention to someone with lived experience.

“If The Police Kill Me” handles the disturbing truth of the precarious nature of survival unique to the black experience. With that said, the vocal delivery (especially early on in the track) lacks a touch of the visceral, vitriolic outrage which is an appropriate by-product of the savage reality of police violence against black people. It’s understandable that the softer melodic approach could be said to encapsulate the weariness of spirit, the subdued comprehension of every moment having a drastically higher chance of being your last, solely for the hue of your epidermis (whether in your bed sleeping like Fred Hampton or driving with hyper-vigilance about your blinkers with Sandra Bland in mind), but it’s just a different direction than seems suiting to the topic. “We are living in a war zone” is a powerful opening which could do well to be followed up with more militancy. Although, the smooth R&B accompaniments (complete with sexy bass walks and dreamy organ work) do lend themselves nicely to the vocal approach, especially the catchy thought-provoking hooks.

“White Supremacy Is The Enemy” (apart from being a demonstrable fact throughout history) carries the same sexy bass style forward, laced with strong sampled quotes (an appreciable motif throughout the EP). The deep and rightful appreciation of blackness contrasted with the anger of attempts to usurp black aspects hits exactly where it needs when the lyrical content tickles the ears alongside the timbre of tambourines, leaving perfect room for the samples to speak their own peace. The song evokes reminders of the myths of white history and the historical eugenicist paradigm of superhuman/demonism. The layered vocal of the chorus really helps to underscore the message, couched in samples denouncing white-washing history (solid foreshadow, “The whole concept of whiteness…was a trick”) and sardonic verse (“Don’t forget the tan, of course black woman slang/They copy everything except being slain”).

“Jesus Was A Black Man With Dreads” immediately struck me because in my youth I had this argument so many times while a student at a white Catholic school. Again, we see the recurring theme of perfectly selected quotes dropping truth bombs, while the smoothness in the bass and dreamy organ/vibraphone tones carry us through. Normally the continuation of the musical aspects would bother this listener, striving to be constantly drawn in by difference; however it’s exactly what this project needs (the four tracks maintain cohesion without wreaking of boredom). The lyrics also need all the room they can (and do) get.

In the track “Black Women,” we finally hear the raw vitriol aforementioned juxtaposed with the voice of Sandra Bland, evoking a smokey R&B vibe from the piano and other melodic elements. The lyrical flow in the verses speak to the truth of the lyrical content itself, an appreciation that honors the muse. Misogyny as a whole is a colossal and persistent issue, yet within this track, it’s well-mentioned how it impacts black women (and those of the LGBTQI2+ community). In far too real of a way, this track is like an ode to many ghosts, those whose names we know and those we don’t, the velvety chorus like a hand caressing a loved one about to be interred.

Though I personally may have gone creatively in different directions here or there, the EP is an addictive masterpiece: lyrically sublime, spirit-shaking advocacy, intertwined with deliciously smooth melodies. This is a work which Tha Capital G should be proud of, and I strongly recommend this as listening to allies in the seemingly endless struggle against systemic, structural racism and implicit, unquestioned biases.

Connect with Tha Capital G: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

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Music Reviews

ALBUM REVIEW: Wurdd Jenkins – Ellenswood

By Debesh Suvat

Ellenswood is a strange place. Look for it on a map, start in Scotland. Zoom in on West Fife. Zoom in much closer, and you’ll find it in the mind of Wurrd Jenkins (of Shadow People fame and whose comics appear in 100 percent Biodegradable, Something Wicked, Octal & Slice). I know, a little different to mention the comic credits for the lyricist of an experimental hip hop EP, but vital to the concept of the project itself.

Wurrd partnered with fellow Scots Kyle Meldrum (of Sunny Saltcoats) and Nunny Boy (of Ayrshire), who together form Voldo, as well as expat Scot Pineconesweetstones, now residing in Ilsan, Korea, to bring to life an idea fermented from his comic book writing days. For those who are unaware, this is already a heavy-hitting team, for example, you may recognize Nunny Boy from the group All Time High among other collabs and projects, including remixes of Rosie Gaines, Wendy James, and The Lovely Eggs (selected by Annie Nightingale to be featured on BBC Radio 1).

The exquisite production of Pineconesweetstones as mastered by Nunny offers rich, colorful layers of thoughtful substrata over which Wurrd’s words easily and skillfully tell an enchanting story. Perfectly offset by the smooth flowing melodic hooks of Kyle Meldrum, each song takes you to the same strange town, from a different moment and point of view, with unfaltering prowess in invoking the imagery of slippery cobblestone and askance villager glances initially conceived of ironically during a decade hiatus from music. Each member referred to their role as a breath of fresh air, and the synergy of every component within this musical trifecta provides the same fresh air for the listener on this spellbound journey.

Ellenswood is a perfect example of how you don’t have to be completely off the wall to be experimental, but utilize creativity, multimedia inclinations (just ask painter, wood/metal worker, sculptor, and musician Kyle Meldrum), and interpersonal connections to create something bigger and better. It is also a perfect microcosm of artists helping each other reinforce their love of the craft, and also in this, a snapshot of 2020, working together across thousands of miles to keep the fire lit. Anyone who really appreciates originality in hip hop would be remiss to not include this in their collection.

Connect with Debesh: Twitter

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