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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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Where Tradition Meets Vision: The Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo

Photo courtesy of the Colored Musicians Club

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 editor@eloquent-magazine.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.

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