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Interview: Monique DeBose

By JD Brant

THE MULTI-HYPHENATE

Monique DeBose is a storyteller with intent, this much is clear. As I listen to her album You Are the Sovereign One I hear a resilience in her voice, years in the making, that only a true-to-grit jazz singer can upholster into a luxurious 16-track music anthology, each chapter in her story more intimate than the last.

The award-winning musician, entrepreneur, and coach is breaking free from any singular definition of “artist” and reinventing what it means to be MORE in today’s entertainment age. Monique is a multi-hyphenate wielding the universal power of music to champion social justice and human rights causes. Through the creation of her viral #BrownBeauty hashtag, the singer assembled a mosaic of strong women of color to feature in her self-empowerment ballad of the same name (below):

The video unfolds like a Zora Neale Hurston novel, swirling with movement and tempos of the body, a temple to be treasured and admired. “Brown Beauty” is just one of 16 tracks on her album that speak directly to the Brown and Black experience. Monique is of mixed race herself and draws on her life to reach a personal breakthrough, which she hopes others will reach, too, through her artistry.

“Human Condition” is the third single released from You Are The Sovereign One and features spoken word by life coach Preston Smiles. As part of her commitment to uplifting others, Monique is also offering a course that teachers women to live their best and most fulfilling lives, which runs in theme with her song release.

“Human Condition” is a plush, mid-tempo bop bringing hip hop, caberet, soul, gospel, and 90s R&B tones to life, featuring a swelling choir that drives the message home (below):

Monique answered a few questions for me regarding perhaps her most pivotal single, “Brown Beauty.” The track speaks to Monique and women like her on a deeper level of connection. And in reading Monique’s responses to my questions, I learn more about her as a woman behind that track.

As a woman who is fiercely candid about the career decisions she has made, Monique strikes me as someone humbly regal, with maybe a tiny case of imposter syndrome. But, as with all risk-taking, a growing nervous sensation in the stomach is proof of our own human condition, a sign that we’re on the right path, because the right path is never easy. Yes, she is courageous. Yes, she is strong. But what she represents is the new normal for so many women in the arts in America. Women who are more informed about their own options in business and their right to choose the life intended for them because of people like her.

Here are her answers to my questions:

Can you tell me a little bit about the concept behind “Brown Beauty” and the process of seeking participants for it?

So the concept behind brown beauty is to celebrate, acknowledge, and to celebrate and acknowledge black women and women of color. Because in my experience, I feel like I have been asked to play multiple roles that are arduous, that are challenging, that require so much grace, and sometimes so little reward. And I felt like that really is the story for a lot of Black and Brown women in the world. The song originated when I was working on a body of work around my experience as a mixed race woman. And what “Brown Beauty” really spoke was a song that spoke to me navigating distinct worlds, and really taking a moment to acknowledge that it is a conscious effort, or is my conscious choice to.

I have a lyric that says, “Walking the line, Master of which face to show protector of all counsel for the seeds that you sow, consciously choosing to forego that quiet rest, consistent confrontation to that call. She answers yes.” And I feel like that is really what a lot of Black women and women of color are, are being asked to do and are consciously doing. And so this song was really about celebrating that and acknowledging that and saying “I see you.”

So my manager and I really talked about this and thought it would make sense that we invite other Black women and women of color into this visual representation of the song and video. And so we set out to do a social media campaign where we reached out to Black and Brown women…We reached out to a great number of my friends and asked them if they would want to submit a picture and tell us what Brown beauty meant to them…So there’s 50 women in the video [and] some I didn’t know before, and some I knew…It’s a beautiful acknowledgement. One woman wrote me and said that her daughter was happy to see her in it. But she said it struck such a deeper chord than just “Ooh, my mom’s in a video.” She said it was like medicine and healing for her and her daughter, and she had wished that she had had that when she was a child.

What kind of feedback have you been getting about the video for “Brown Beauty”?

I’ve been getting feedback that it is gorgeous, visual. I’ve been getting feedback that it’s such medicine for women and for their daughters. In that they are feeling like they wish they had something like this when they were growing up. I’m getting feedback that it’s time for…women of color to be unapologetic about their own beauty, their own grace, and that it’s time for black women and brown women to get to define what their beauty is really about this.

I listened to a podcast episode of “MORE” and I really thought it was entertaining. In terms of value, what do you think you bring to the market/culture that is different in the format/style/conversation of the podcast?

What I think I bring that is different is that we’re getting an opportunity to hear women tell their own stories about things that women care about. Each week, the podcast focuses on a different theme of choosing more something. So each week I have two women share their story. So (in a previous) week, I have Kermit Bakar from the Pussycat Dolls and [we] went to high school together. So she has a story about healing…I have stories about faith. [I have] one of my best friends, people I know and I love and I have a deep connection with [on the podcast], so I feel like that in itself makes the podcast that much more entertaining…You get to sit in and be a fly on the wall and listen to friends talk. And when, I think, friends speak, you just get deeper immediately…We spend time with listeners to give them a tool to help access more of what that theme of the week was. So it’s not just storytelling for the sake of storytelling, it’s storytelling and an opportunity for people to integrate for their own specific lives. 

What kind of artists (jazz or otherwise) did you grow up listening to, and what about the genre of jazz specifically attracted you?

Ella Fitzgerald is one of my favorite artists. I’m going to say this really quickly. Just how she grew up, you know, and how she decided to become a singer. How she was able to be a young singer with an all-male orchestra…and how her voice just bounces across. Across melodies, her scanning abilities are phenomenal. Ella Fitzgerald is somebody I listened to growing up. I used to listen to Marvin Gaye a lot. This is music in my household. Stevie Wonder a lot. Sade a lot. I’m trying to think what else but I also listened. I was that kid who also listened to K with 101 like the oldies. I was the kid who listened to the 94 seven the way before it became kind of like an old school station now what it feels like today, I was listening to like, just contemporary, like, adult contemporary music as a young child. But then I’d also listened to like, those dinner albums that I’m imagining a lot of like…I would say probably more white families would listen to. So I had albums from my my grandparents’ house. I love Duke Ellington. His answer is all over the place. Just for what he represents, and the music he wrote, I love that he had Billy straight horn as his, you know, right hand man who was a gay man, a gay black man back in the day, and he had a place to really just share his creative juices with the band. So I love Duke Ellington even more for that reason.

Jazz was really attractive to me for a couple of reasons, some positive some not positive, but however you get there you get there…  Jazz was very complex and yet it was very simple. Like you can do the 251 come right back chords, the two-chord, the five-chord, the one-chord. So there was some real like mathematics to it in my brain. And then it was also extremely complex. Like some of the solos you hear like Charlie Parker, just some of the solos and some of the scatting that Ella Fitzgerald did, is just really out there for me. And so I really wanted to understand it, it pulled me in. But then as a singer, I found jazz was, you know, because there was a lot of the Great American Songbook, I found jazz was something I could use my voice towards, because there were other singing going on in the world, you know, that was contemporary, that I was growing up with. For example, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and I was just like, my voice doesn’t do that. I don’t have a voice that can do all those runs…So jazz was a really beautiful safe harbor…for my voice. [Jazz] was my way into singing and music. 

The pandemic has greatly shifted American thinking, in that many people are quitting traditional jobs to pursue interests in passions like music, art, and the humanities. As someone who left a corporate role for the music industry, were you given any career advice early on about making this move, and did that advice influence you?

Yeah, actually…I left a corporate job 53 weeks after I’d been hired to do that corporate job, because I’d moved to Philadelphia after I’d done internships at a pharmaceutical company, and I knew after like, the first two weeks, I was like, oh, oh, no, this is not my path. And there was a lot of pressure from my dad, because as a Black man growing up in North Carolina, these are his words, you know, you don’t leave a good job, you know, you got a good job, you keep a good job, they’re paying you this much money out of getting out of college, and you’re going to walk away. But I knew after two weeks, I was like, Oh, this cannot be my life. And so I had a real choice, I decided to save 53 weeks, because after a year, you didn’t have to pay back the move. So I was like, I’ll live in Philly for a year and just see what Philly is about. I started going to open mics. I started just kind of looking into what does it mean to be a singer. And so after 53 weeks, I left and I thought, Oh, I could come back to Los Angeles, which is where I’m from, and not pay rent. I could live in my parents house. Or I could go to New York, and you know, pursue dreams there. I came back to LA. And that was a good thing.

You know, financially, I do sometimes wonder what I would have done if I had gone to New York. I think when I’m put in situations where it’s more challenging, I think I thrive, like I just rise to a challenge more. So I’m talking and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be telling you as someone who left the corporate role in the music industry. Was I given any career advice? Yeah, don’t do it. that was the advice I was given. And it influenced me by making me, you know, keep trying and keep pushing, because I didn’t want to fail. And I honestly don’t think I’ve made it yet. And I’m still hoping one day I make it. But yeah, some of the advice I was given was, you know, make sure you have a backup plan, which I don’t always agree with. Mind you, I’ve always had a backup plan. So I’m speaking from that position of having it but I sometimes think if we don’t burn the boats, we won’t really put ourselves 100% in it. That’s it. That’s what I had to say. Burn the boat. But make sure you have somebody’s phone number of [someone else’s] you can sleep on.

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SINGLE STREAM REVIEW: Anna Burch – ‘Your Heart May Be Heavy’

Photo courtesy of Polyvinyl Record Co. 

By JD Brant

Detroit crooner Anna Burch has released a spectacular holiday single for us all, “Your Heart May Be Heavy,” a delicate and glowing seasonal tiding that belongs in the scene of an old-timey romantic movie (or a modern-day Netflix version, maybe Dash & Lily), one where the couple takes a walk through Central Park and indulges in an innocent kiss under shimmering orbs. The single is the pause some of us are in need of, especially to ward off the ghosts of 2020’s past and remember simpler times.

2020 has been quite the year, but what many can agree on is that it’s put our priorities in check and made us more present and appreciative of the people and things we can enjoy in the now. Anna’s dreamy vocals are the pillow to our weary heads as 2020 comes to a close, and none of us want to look back. So put on your snow boots, pour some hot cocoa, and pull out your toboggan. 2021 is going to be one wild ride.

For more music from Anna Burch, visit Polyvinyl Records.

JD Brant is a music and culture writer from Buffalo, NY. Her work has appeared in PopMatters, The Good Men Project, and more.

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Womxn and Romance

There’s Nothing Wrong With Being Single at 30. Here’s Why. 

By JD Brant 

The first time I was aware that my status as a single woman made people uncomfortable was on a business trip to Boston a year and a half ago. We were nearing the end of our trip and waiting for our return flight home. The gaggle of girls I was traveling with sped up in front of the new hires (there were three of us), and headed for the gift shop at the other end of the airport. One of the lead sales people turned around, and with an agitated snarl, like a cat whose tail just got stepped on, said, “We’re stopping at the gift shop for a minute, because [dramatic pause]…we have husbands and children.” They skipped along their merry way, leaving the team of new people in their dust.

The insult was clearly hurled at me. I was the only single person in the new hire group. It stung. It stung when they rejoined the group later on in the seating area. It stung when we boarded the plane. It stung while I tried to nap on the plane, and couldn’t let go of that mini dagger (I first thought maybe I misinterpreted her comment, but after ruminating on it for a while, I realized that I was pretty accurate in my assumption) hurled at me with calculation. I was a threat—not because I did my job sufficiently, or because I refused to stay up and party in our hotel room (I can’t say the same for the sales team). It was because I was single, and they weren’t.

There’s this stigma that, once a woman hits a certain age, her eggs shrivel and her tits sag. I mean, biologically speaking, that’s true, but being single after 30 doesn’t mean you have to curl up in a ball and die, for real. If you ask me, life begins at 30 (I’ve picked up so many new interests, it’s exciting). Some studies call this unwed and childless state a marker of social infertility, and the trend exists in both womxn and men, for different reasons. Speaking from the womxn’s perspective, I can attest to two narrowly-defined stereotypes we are pegged as over the course of our singledom: the “Long Island Lolita” and the “Cat Lady.”

When I’m introduced to married or shacked-up couples, it’s either one of the two, with the man in the relationship asking me if I carry a lint roller everywhere I go (my neighbor’s boyfriend had assumed that because I was single, that I should probably adopt five cats, since I have all that time to spare outside of all my other responsibilities, don’t cha know) and the womxn in the relationship assuming that Rent-a-Mistress sent me (wherever that is, is it a real place? Not sure). These are two extremely dangerous and idiotic stereotypes that hinder womxn from flourishing during a period of well-deserved (and well-earned) self-growth. 

In a world where anxiety and internalized demons often nudge us toward codependency, singledom can also be perceived as uncompromised allegiance to the security of, and faith in, oneself. The more time you spend alone, the more time you have to wrestle with past insecurities, relationship flops, and general inquiries of the soul. This makes a person more steadfast in cultivating the life they truly want to share with another individual, a life of focused resilience.

When both people do this unglamorous but necessary legwork, it makes the relationship healthier in the long run. In doing my own introspective dirty work, I’ve been able to break the horrible habit of romanticizing partners before I actually get to know them past the “mystique” of casual exchanges. This is because I am fiercely independent, capable of loving strongly because I’ve been single for so long. But this is also the number one thing I believe so many adults continue to do while playing the dating game. They tabulate ideals and expectations in a pseudo match that may create resentment in their partner down the road, or, they offer up their love to the wrong person completely, without question. For the people who’ve done both, staying single makes sense.

If you’re 30 and single, it can mean that you’ve investigated yourself. It means you’re not interested in rushing into a situation that could cause anxiety, guilt, or resentment before you’re ready to. It means you’ve developed a love for things outside of a singular idea of love and an idealized concept of romance. More people are choosing to stay single longer, and so I feel that the media should simply back off of casting womxn and men into the “young, single, and sexy” spotlight; even with showers of compliments, there’s an inherent societal pressure thrust upon us to perform for friends, for family, for co-workers. Womxn like Mindy Kaling, an actress who manages to dodge the “hard-ass” career woman stereotype, shouldn’t be interrogated about what it’s like to be a single mother. Neither should feminist allies like Michael B. Jordan. From a journalist’s perspective, we should stop asking our few 21st-century “modern womxn” icons how it feels to be single and just let them live as single people. It’s not a deficiency. Singledom is a lifestyle, a healthy choice for healthy people.

CONNECT WITH JD: Twitter | Instagram

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Music Reviews

ALBUM REVIEW: MELD – Words of the Water

By JD Brant

Nashville’s got soul, and a helluva lot of it. I previously wrote about a handful of womxn-identifying musicians taking New Nashville by storm, and I’m continuing the love with an album drop from a soul singer whose pipes are the source of much envy. MELD (government name, Melanie Dewey) recently performed songs off of her August debut, Words of the Water, live from the iconic Music Marathon Works in Nashville. 

During her live set, the ocean spilled from the movement of interpretive dancers and poetry from soul strummers Katie Buxton, Amber Lily, and company. MELD donated money raised to The Ocean Cleanup, and it’s not the first time she’s used her platform for environmental activism. 

A born-again Janis Joplin and a true jambander at heart, MELD has rocked out with Zoogma, Brothers Past, and her band’s played at The Mothership Festival In Taos, New Mexico, and Sonic Bloom in Colorado. She’s done all of this while raising money for charities like OceanAid, Coalition For Clean Air, and Urban Green Lab, making every droplet count. 

On Words of the Water, MELD climbs into subtle and gentle falsetto patterns on “Colors” that are more aligned with Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” than Ariana’s “Oh Santa!” (although Mariah and Ariana hit a high note with their whistle register, for sure). On “Freedom,” the listener is offered melodic grooves and tinctures of color and flame, or maybe Sound & Color, as progressive jazz rockers Alabama Shakes would have it. The track is exceptionally climactic, and a cliffhanger ending swells with the magic of a sunset rising above crashing waves. 

Words of the Water certainly isn’t MELD’s first swing out of the park. Her 2017 album H.U.R.T. is smoldering with instant classics. “Leaving You Out” (the out-of-this-world remix I’m speaking of is here) is a radio bop with club appeal. At a heart-racing BPM and silky-smooth orchestration, the song’s mastering (by Anthony Thogmartin of Papadosio) is on the same level of quality as the producing chops backing Nashville megastars. Projects like Meghan Trainor’s Treat Myself, which splits discography credits among thirteen different producers, has a similar sonic bite.

On a personal note, MELD’s father passed away of cancer this summer, but before that time came, she was able to mobilize her social media forces and catch the attention of former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and Dead & Company member John Mayer. Both members gave her father, a loyal deadhead, a 50th birthday shoutout on social media before his passing. 

You don’t have to be a Grateful Dead fan to get behind what MELD is throwing down. If you enjoy Joss Stone or Jewel’s earthy aesthetic, you’ll have no problem connecting to a song on her album. 

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Music Reviews

Alessia Cara Delights Fans with Surprise EP Holiday Stuff

By Katiee McKinstry

This past week, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Alessia Cara surprised fans with a holiday-themed EP, Holiday Stuff.

The EP features Cara’s past holiday hits, from covers such as “The Christmas Song” and “Moody’s Mood for Love.” Likewise, the EP also has Cara’s previous holiday hits including “Make It To Christmas” and “The Only Thing Missing.” However, “Make It To Christmas” got a makeover—the song sounds completely different from its original, Cara’s holiday treat to her fans. 

“Surprise! Holiday Stuff, a (very impulsive) 4 song EP of festive tunes coming to you midnight ET tomorrow,” Cara said on Twitter. “By me and the great Jon Levine.”

Earlier this year on July 17, shortly after her 24th birthday, Cara dropped a different EP called This Summer: Live Off The Floor. The EP featured live performances of the songs off of This Summer and three bonus tracks as well. This EP, as well as Holiday Stuff, are super special in that the proceeds from the EP sales (and Cara’s EP sales for the next 21 years) are going to Save The Children

“Alessia that was so good,” said a fan on Twitter. “The EP is fire. Go stream Holiday Stuff by Alessia Cara right now, like now.” 

Cara released Holiday Stuff via Canada’s biggest music company, Def Jam Recordings/Universal Music Canada. You can listen to Holiday Stuff on all major streaming platforms this holiday. Watch the video below for behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Holiday Stuff:


Katiee McKinstry is a music and culture blogger who has experience working with crisis center and DV shelter populations. For more of her work, visit her website.

CONNECT WITH KATIEE: Twitter

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Call for Submissions – New Year Issue

Details

Eloquent Mag is accepting poetry and short story submissions for its first New Year issue, slated for January 26 digital publication. We invite you to submit your literary work to our arts-based startup! For more information, visit our “About” page here.

Please submit up to three poems or one short story (you can submit to both categories) by January 15. “A New America” is the theme of the New Year issue. We will accept poetry on the following topics: Body politics, national & world politics, gender issues, pop culture criticism, race and social justice, science & the arts. Please include a brief bio of yourself, where people can read your work, and a high-resolution photo we can publish. All work must be submitted in Google Doc format.

Please change your permissions so that we can edit your work directly from the document. Email it to editor@eloquent-magazine.com with “New Year Literary Submission” as the subject line. This is an unpaid opportunity. Please follow us on our social channels for both paid and unpaid writing opportunities:

Facebook + Twitter + Instagram: @artwithaptitude

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Featured Review

ALBUM REVIEW: Working Men’s Club – Self-Titled

By Jacob Thompson 

Yorkshire post-punk techno rockers Working Men’s Club released their first LP on Heavenly Recordings. Produced by Ross Orton (The Fall, M.I.A., Arctic Monkeys), this self-titled debut is a rallying cry against the boredom of mill-town life in the Northwest of England, and manages to find a surprising amount of variety in its synth-drum soundscapes without ever losing the sense of identity that marks its Todmorden origins.

This is in no small part thanks to 18-year-old frontman Syd Minsky-Sargeant. Working Men’s Club formed in 2019, and Minsky-Sargeant is the last of the original cohort left. He is joined by Liam Ogburn on bass, Rob Graham on guitar and synth, and Mairead O’Connor on guitar, keyboards, and vocals. Together, they provide a punchy, bass-driven sound, though Minsky-Sargeant’s vocals are the grumbling undercurrent that fuels most of the tracks here.

Opening track Valleys flexes these muscles immediately, drawing out an industrial sound with a heavy vocal thrum that lends the opening of the album a brooding industrial quality. Everything here is defined by the West Yorkshire landscape; valleys, hills, and empty mills, red-brick warehouses and the rusting pipes within. There’s an ever-present sense of frustration in Minsky-Sargeant’s lyrics, a yearning for something more than the decrepit mill-towns, swept up in hopeless optimism and inevitable pessimism.

White Rooms and People and Outside are two tracks that really hit the paradoxical nature of this desperation, opening up the grungy bass of the gloomy Valleys and acidic A.A.A.A to sky-high funk riffs and mellow lyricism. The positive spaces these tracks sweep through are all tinged with a melancholic edge, a mellow comedown after the trance-like poetics of John Cooper Clarke, itself full of echoes of The Durutti Column and New Order, Graham and O’Connor working wonders with their loops and reverb.

Working Men’s Club work best when they’re letting their own identity flourish beyond their influences, and the album is tightly produced, always holding back just enough as not to be overbearing. But it’s when this strong identity is ignored that the album suffers; tracks like A.A.A.A and Be My Guest suffer somewhat for a lack of focus, whilst mercifully short Cook a Coffee is so on-the-nose punk that it feels more like a child of imitation than inspiration.  

Despite these missteps the album ends on a high, Tomorrow’s Gordon Gano-esque nihilism building up to the sinister and energetic Teeth, a pacy hi-hat racer leading to a frenetic climax that could easily serve as the album’s final track. Instead, we get Angel, a twelve-minute bumper that somehow justifies its place. This is a gig song recorded with a crowd in mind, and when Minsky-Sargeant’s lyrics disappear beneath Ogburn’s bass we are flung into a thrashing finale, at once a rebellion against and celebration of tiny venues in tiny towns everywhere, a mosh-pit in a local boozer, flung pints and trampled feet and all.

Working Men’s Club make a strong impression with this debut, and together with Orton they have produced a powerful statement piece. Though at times their sound veers close to feeling like an echo of what has come before, the oft-forgotten youth of England’s Northwest will no doubt find much to love here, and perhaps even some hope for the future of their scene.

@JacobBaggins is a Manchester-based music journalist and former Fuse FM radio writer.

CONNECT WITH JACOB: Twitter

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Featured Review

ALBUM REVIEW: Bartees Strange – Live Forever

By John Mccracken 

Bartees Strange’s Live Forever is a pulsing, sonic conundrum, released on Music Memory and mastered by Grammy-nominated producer Will Yip. In the first minutes of Live Forever, the Washington D.C. songwriter paints with an ethereal brush. “Jealousy” opens with soft piano chords, birds chirping, and an almost unintelligible Strange delivers lines about anger, missing pieces of the self, and a missing but needed voice. 

Distinct sounds like his will stop you in your tracks when you first hear them. Music’s ability to mold memories with reality is palpable with brilliant songwriting such as his. While bathing my son after an extraordinarily messy lunch, the first notes of “Jealousy” played through a small Bluetooth speaker. The window was open and the trees swayed with their newly changing leaves. He babbled along to the slowly crashing chords, shimmying in the rippling water, pushing infinite waves to the edges of the pool.

“Mustang” followed after, cutting the soft sounds with sharp synthesizers and a driving post-punk anthem. Strange has a stunning vocal range, moving between soft indie rock and anthemic, almost bellowing choruses. Showing his vocal range alongside musical prowess, Strange delves into a gritty punk in an abrupt ending to the track. 

Bartees Strange is a gifted songwriter with a unique background. Born in Ipswich, England, he travelled across Europe at a young age, being exposed to music through the church. His life in the States has had a proclivity to move around, jumping between music scenes in Oklahoma, eventually finding his way to the metro D.C. area as a songwriter and producer. 

Citing his young life and navigating the world as a Black man, “Boomer” is a fast-paced song, switching between wittily delivered rap verses and jangling, boot-stomping country bridges. 

He juggles aspirations of a better life on the trippy rap track “Kelly Rowland.” On “Stone Meadows,” he builds a wall of stadium rock, blending his loud delivery and shuffling drums.

Strange’s power lies in his ability to evoke mood with the strike of a chord. His large breadth of musical experiences, ranging from country bands, emo bands, and formal opera vocal training, has created a perfect mix of the unpredictable in him. He transcends genre with a smile on his face and a quick whip in his words. 

While trying to trace a singular root for in his sound, a messy clump of vines lies in the wake. This album is a gesture towards an infinite possibility of sound, influenced by punk, rap, indie-pop, synth-rock, with a brilliant, singular singer songwriting voice.Genre isn’t really in Strange’s vocabulary, because his songwriting melds sonic worlds together in a distinctive thread. 

Strange closes the album with the moody anthem “Ghostly.” The track ebbs and flows with plicking synth chords as he contemplates memories of friends and the effects of growing distant from one another. Midway through, he shifts into a new refrain with driving chords, reaching towards a hefty album closer. The song evaporates quickly, mixing vocal harmonies and crashing static.

John Mccracken is a freelance writer from Wisconsin, living in Green Bay. He’s reported on breaking labor news, the intimacy of food in the face of a global pandemic, and interviewed multiple New York Times Bestselling authors. Visit his work here.

CONNECT WITH JOHN: Twitter

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Oct/Nov Featured Story

A Sacred Sound Industry Insider Reflects on the Commodification of Spirituality and Cultural Appropriation within Her Field

It’s the 2010s, and I’ve just swallowed two small cups of the hallucinogenic drink Ayahuasca. It tastes like dirt, and nothing much happens for the first hour. I spend this time sitting in a forest in the United States. A man from Central America, who is leading the ceremony, plays a variety of instruments laid out on a makeshift altar before him. These include shakers, Native American flutes and Native American drums. 

Below the mountain clearing where we’ve set up the ceremony is a Native American sweat lodge. It’s operated by a Native American man and his partner, a white woman initiated by local Grandmothers as a pipe carrier in the tradition of the Ani-Coosa. This couple knows all of us in the clearing well and has granted us permission to use the land.

After the brew takes hold, I experience the sensation of dissolving into a void where I undergo what feels like several cycles of death and rebirth. Just as I internally make peace with the thought that I might have actually died, I hear the familiar sound of fingers striking steel, emitting a harmonic vibration that permeates the proverbial “veil.” 

Each note serves as a kind of sonic breadcrumb, guiding me back to myself. When I open my eyes, I see my then husband, sitting across from me under the starlight, playing an instrument built by the company we owned together. 

Mainstreaming the Medicine Show

My experience is not unique. 

Look beyond Western Civilization, and you’ll find stories about medicine people that date back centuries. They were respected community leaders who facilitated sacred ceremonies designed to promote healing within individual community members and society as a whole. 

In some parts of the world, these practices continue in alignment with time-honored traditions. However, they have also become increasingly popular in Western culture. 

Throughout the 2000s, North Americans and Europeans have traveled to South America, Central America and Africa to participate in ceremonies, performed by indigenous leaders and Western immigrants alike. 

US citizens of European heritage have participated in Native American sweat lodges and Sun Dance ceremonies–sometimes under the leadership of consenting Native Americans, other times in their own approximations of these religious rites. 

Meanwhile, the use of white sage, Native American musical instruments and Native American headdresses have become popular trends, prevalent at Coachella and other music festivals. Secular references to Native American concepts like “spirit animals” have also become mainstream. 

Cultural Appropriation 101

Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” 

While the idea of cultural appropriation has existed for decades, mainstream acknowledgement is relatively new. 

Like many others, I first heard the term in 2013 after both Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus came under fire for appropriating Asian and Black culture, respectively, at major music award ceremonies. Five years later, the Oxford English Dictionary added the term in March 2018. 

Since then, discussion of appropriation within the mainstream music industry has continued to focus primarily on Black culture and Asian culture. The result has been an ongoing debate around appropriating a culture as a tribute versus appropriating a culture as a means of profiting from it. 

When it comes to Miley’s twerking or Katy Perry’s impersonation of a Geisha, the evidence of appropriating for profit is pretty clear. 

When it comes to Native American drum circles and indigenous plant medicine ceremonies, the space between appropriation and appreciation is more grey. These practices are not designed to entertain a paying audience. Rather, they use music as a form of medicine. However, this usually comes with a fee, and that makes the practices vulnerable to both cultural appropriation and other forms of abuse.  

At best, indigenous ceremonies combine the consumption of plants, ritual dance and acts of physical endurance with music to produce a spiritually profound experience, which may have additional mental and physical therapeutic benefits. 

At worst, the same ceremonies recklessly endanger people who are encouraged to participate despite known contraindications and open the doorway for self-proclaimed healers to commit acts of psychological manipulation and sexual abuse. 

My Contributions to Sacred Sound

My individual experience of Ayahuasca has been positive. I feel it has helped alleviate anxiety and depression. That first night in the woods also provided me with a vision of how I would later overcome codependency and make peace with a cancer diagnosis. I’ve had similar experiences participating in drum circles and Native American sweat lodge ceremonies. 

I’m also a white woman of 100 percent European descent, who continues to profit to some degree from the sale of a musical instrument that has a complicated history.

Generically called a “handpan,” the type of instrument my company made originated in Switzerland, where Felix Roehner opened the company PANart to distribute his creation, the Hang. A dome-shaped, hand-played percussion instrument that sounds as much like a harp as a drum, the Hang takes its inspiration from multiple other instruments. Of these, the most influential is the steel pan, itself the product of a rich Afro-Carribean heritage. 

My company paid partial tribute to the handpan’s Afro-Carribean lineage thanks to our collaboration with late Trinidadian steel pan pioneer Ellie Mannette.We also aligned ourselves with consenting Indigenous medicine practitioners as a result of deciding to make the instrument following a plant medicine ceremony. 

Taken as a whole, the severity and impact of appropriation that I’ve both witnessed and perpetuated is mixed. As the company closes, I feel more good than harm has come from the venture. I also feel there is room to do better. When envisioning a clear path forward within the sacred sound industry, I’m inspired by the psychedelic community’s emphasis on the importance of “set” and “setting.”

Set, Setting and Social Justice 

Simply put, “set” refers to a person’s state of mind prior to imbibing hallucinogenic substances, and “setting” refers to the environment within which they do so. Each has a profound impact on a person’s experience as their perception of reality shifts. 

Thus far, the year 2020 has inspired a collective shift in humanity’s perception of reality. This is especially strong in the United States, which has remained the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic for many consecutive months. Amid the pandemic, the United States is also experiencing a highly polarized presidential election, a financial crisis, devastating wildfires and a new civil rights era. 

This collective setting has resulted in a variety of individual sets, ranging from paranoid and conspiratorial to passionately determined to enact lasting social change. 

In the wake of social distancing, Westernized sweat lodges, drum circles and plant medicine ceremonies have also slowed to a virtual halt–giving everyone in the sacred sound industry an opportunity to reflect. As we reintegrate into society, I think it’s time to raise our awareness.

While I support access to Native music and traditions for all, I also realize this can’t happen until there is justice for Native people. Otherwise, prioritizing Western access to sacred music and traditions will come to exemplify what journalist Nadra Kareem Nittle describes in A Guide to Understanding and Avoiding Cultural Appropriation when she writes: 

Ultimately, art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from face negative stereotypes.

Native Justice Now 

Via her blog Native Appropriations, activist and academic Adrienne Keene provides a dynamic portrait of the challenges facing contemporary Native American society. A member of the Cherokee Nation, as well as a graduate of both Stanford and Harvard, Keene cites cultural appropriation as a danger to Native peoples for three key reasons: 

  • First, it’s often a misguided and blatantly disrespectful commodification of spirituality that inherently devalues Native American culture. 
  • Second, sweeping appropriations enforce stereotypes that Native American culture is monolithic rather than dynamic and varied across over 500 diverse tribes. 
  • Third, it regards Native people as part of the historic past, separating them from contemporary society and thus undermining their existence. 

So, how can sacred sound evolve to meet the needs of a more just world? 

For that, I look to Instagram, where Atlanta-based musician Brooklyn recently shared a particularly insightful post. While promoting her new line of hand-made rosemary and sage incense cones, the artist wrote:

This sage is NOT white sage. While I do come from Afro-Native American descent , (specifically, Blackfoot) I was not raised in the culture and have not cultivated my own white sage; therefore, I do not feel confident in making these cones from white sage. If you do purchase white sage, please either purchase directly from Indigenous people or from shops that carry White Sage made from Indigenous people!

While Brooklyn’s talking sage, her simple point holds true for Native American drums, flutes, ceremonies, and art. If we want to participate in these practices, we must use our spending power to support the Indigenous people with whom these traditions originated, and we must respect them as the relevant, contemporary authorities they are.

Kelli Lynn Grey is an Atlanta-based copywriter, curriculum designer, essayist and poet. She presently manages the fledgling imprint BAMF Books and formerly co-founded TerraTonz LLC, a global-facing steel percussion business. A mother of two and defender of civil and human rights, she shares updates about writing and life through her newsletter The Grey Way


CONNECT WITH KELLI: Twitter

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