Sons of Kemet have never been known to stay stuck in the same path. The band is more of a collaborative effort, that has changed through the years, but guided by the brilliant jazz mind of Shabaka Hutchings. On Black To The Future (Impulse!, 2021) the saxophonist and clarinet player has with him Theon Cross on tuba and Edward Wakili-Hick and Tom Skinner on percussion. In addition, the jazz music they create is, on some tracks, fused with spoken word, song, and rap.
The opening track sets the theme. Under a build-up of horn instruments and percussion, poet Joshua Idehen performs a powerful spoken-word piece that explores the past and present of his people’s oppression. He’s certainly angry and tired which he makes clear.
“Thank you For refusing me that inch Because now I do recognise your yardstick The scales have toppled The curtains have collapsed The blonde baboon’s arse is bare in the open And I am a field negro now I do not want your equality It was never yours to give me And even then it was too minor, too little, too late Pull the balaclava over my heart and set it running My revolution rides a black horse and it is stunning”
Another track, Hustle, has a deep, strong beat to it that makes one want to stand up and march in rhythm. The chorus, “Born from the mud with the hustle inside me”, repeats in such a way that it becomes a mantra that one can imagine thousands of people chanting on the street while demanding change.
For those that think jazz can be heavy on the ears, have no worry. This is not as experimental as Hutchings could easily have made it. This is more dance-able and if anything, full of fire. A subtle type of fire that will make you want to move your way in rhythm to the protest.
I myself am an investigative journalist and I have seen how dangerous it can be if a journalist speaks the truth. Which is strange because that is one of a journalist’s main responsibilities. To be a watchdog. To hold the powerful to account. To let the rest of us know if power is being abused.
Some musicians and artists take these journalistic values to heart and even erase the lines between artist and activist. The people that make up the Afro Yaqui Music Collective belong to that group. I had the pleasure of interviewing a core of the group recently and I am thrilled that this is Shout’s end of the year protest music interview.
I spoke with Ben, Gizelxanath and Nejma from the collective about their music and their activism. Ben Barson is a jazz musician, activist and a protege of the legendary Fred Ho, Gizelxanath Rodriguez is a singer, cellist, urban farmer and activist, and Nejma Nefertiti is a fierce emcee, producer and activist.
The trio explained to me their motivations behind their latest collaboration – the global, large scale, jazz and hiphop fusioned opera piece that is Mirror Butterfly as well as their take on their role as artists and activists.
“We got to see how revolutionary music breaks fascism apart.” – Gizelxanath Rodriguez
Halldór: As a music collective you recently released Mirror Butterfly: The Migrant Liberation Movement Suite (August 2019). This work’s liner notes call it “a jazz opera that spans four continents and five centuries”. What was the motivation behind creating such a large scale piece of music?
Ben: The Zapatistas, based among
Mayan peoples in Chiapas Mexico have, a parable about colonization
and resistance. This story was shared with Gizelxanath and I in
Oventic, which is an autonomous Zapatista “caracoles:”
communally-run societies with schools, shops and hospitals whose
labor and resources are shared collectively.
The parable describes a sword that
arrives into a world. It attacks a tree, because it’s the tallest
entity around. The tree transforms into rocks, which stay hidden
underground, building, but the sword attacks these, too, and damages
itself but still splits the stone. These stones turn into water,
which the sword foolishly attacks, only to be rusted and dissolved.
The story is a metaphor for the evolution of Mayan resistance over
five centuries and the current “water” moment are the massive
grassroots decentralized, autonomous, matriarchal, democratic project
that the Zapatistas and other new social movements represent.
We live in the breaking point of the
global climate, when every year, month, day counts to overturn this
carbon capitalist system, and we feel that movements like the
Zapatistas, the national indigenous congress in Mexico, the Kurdish
freedom movement, and the legacy of the Black Panther Party are all
essential to human survival and true self-determination for oppressed
people. With librettist Ruth
Margraff, we developed this jazz opera
with this Zapatista parable as its backbone. That’s what this jazz
opera tries to capture: the battle of these Afro-Indigenous elements
against the sword, a world-historic battle which is taking on quite
intense resonance right now. Peggy
Myo-Young Choy also helped us develop
both in terms of political themes and creating choreography for the
staged version of the work.
Halldór: You have spoken about being artivists before, written essays about it and now scheduled to teach a class on the subject. The Shouts project focuses on both music and activism and how the two are intertwined. Many critics claim the two should be separated and other critics say the same for activism and journalism. Why is your bond to activism so strong and do you feel there is a lack of awareness or social consciousness among artists today? Should the connection between the two disciplines be a choice in your opinion or is it a responsibility?
Nejma: As artists, it’s always
our responsibility to reflect the times and fight for the oppressed.
Not all artists are “conscious” and that’s fine. Not all
artists are going speak for the voices not heard or demand justice.
As for me, it’s my purpose and I walk in it. That’s my decision.
Our music equals our politics, which
prefigures a new society and creates solidarity among
self-determining communities and villages (pueblos) all over the
world. This is how we’re gaining our freedom.
It’s an artist’s responsibility to
inspire people, create awareness, create revolution, teach the youth,
carry on the torch, and continue to pass it on. It’s our obligation
to use our platform. We’ve been given this gift and it’s
important we share it. The world needs it.
Ben: Eco is the opposite of ego.
Ego is when you focus only on yourself and the amazingness of your
self-expression. What is truly amazing is when you can express and
dialogue with communities in struggle, the ecologies of the
community. Expressing this is an ever-evolving tradition, found in
jeliya, the griot’s ancient art.
In terms of activism, music and
activism have always been deeply intertwined especially the music of
the African diaspora. One of the first jazz musicians, an
African-Creole-American named Daniel Desdunes, sat on a segregated
train car in New Orleans in 1892 to protest Jim Crow. He was
arrested. Buddy Bolden, another early jazz musician, theme song was
about an African American who served in the Civil War and later
attacked the police in New Orleans protesting segregation and racism
named Robert Charles. Sidney Bechet, one of the first clarinetists,
claimed his grandfather was the maroon revolutionary Bras-Coupé who
led slave uprisings in Louisiana. The family of Lorenzo Tio, which
included three of New Orleans’s most important clarinetists,
started an agricultural commune in Mexico in the 1850s, before moving
back to New Orleans. So there is this intense, undeniable synergy
between activism, rebellion, alternative forms of living, and the
musicians. And that’s just early jazz. When we move to hip-hop,
reggae, free jazz, pretty much any music from the African diaspora,
you find this revolutionary spirit where social needs and music are
totally connected. It is Eurocentric and even racist to say that art
and politics don’t mix.
Halldór: You had a strong bond with jazz legend and activist Fred Ho. What other musicians or artists have had an impact on your music and activism or inspired your creative process? Do you follow any contemporary protest musicians or socially conscious artists that you want to give a shout out to?
Nejma: From Nina Simone, to The
RZA, to Rakim, to contemporary groups like La Hijas del Rap in
Mexico, to Mama C in Tanzania, who is also an incredible singer and
artist, to Maure Om in Venezuela, who is an emcee, multimedia artist,
and supporter of the Bolivarian Revolution. (Don’t believe the
imperialist hype about Venezuela), to Afrobeat/Hip Hop artist
Napoleon Da Legend, to Caridad De La Luz (La Bruja), poet, activist,
emcee, and theater artist. We are raising
money right now to help Maure Om participate in a hip hop festival,
the Tupac Amaru festival, in Lima, Peru.
From legendary Arabic singer,
songwriter, and film actress Umm Kulthum of Egypt, to the Mama of
Funk, Nona Hendryx, to The Last Poets, and beyond. I love the way
they all, in their own way, carved their own path and brought and are
still bringing the true spirit of authenticity. These artists take
risks and sacrifice time and energy to give you their most vulnerable
Music is protest but it is also
transformation, as in building a new society. We have to reimagine
everything. What is family. What is land. What is water, what is the
self? How do we communicate these questions and imaginations in art?
I love flutist Nicole Mitchell’s tribute to maroon societies in
cloud. She says:
“Imagination, especially black imagination, is a really vital and
undervalued resource. It’s very clear that we can’t continue in
the same direction that we’ve gone, but we need to return to the
source of where imagination and creativity come from, because if we
don’t have another vision then we can’t implement it, and we
can’t make a different future.” So vision is important, and to
have vision, we have to be daring, create art that is impossible.
Nejma: Because artists
continually think ahead while the world is left behind. Sometimes
people need time to catch up, but time is running out. There is no
other time than now. We see beyond this reality.
Ben: Radical innovations of the
past, which emerge like a volcano and almost bring the system down,
get co-opted. Martin Luther King now has a holiday in the United
States, but the state as an institution continues to be anti-black.
Hip-hop expressed Black Power, the legacy of the panther and the
Black Arts movement, a rejection of neoliberalism and police
violence. It was about unity and solidarity and, artistically,
completely revolutionized the relationship between lyric, music, and
poetry. But since then, a neocolonial bourgeoisie has been produced
within, which Jay Z’s partnership with the NFL represents, who will
not sign Colin Kaepernick. We have to create new impossible forms of
music and organizing. Fred Ho and Sun Ra both said, in different
ways, “Everything possible has been tried and failed. Now we have
to do the impossible.” What was impossible will become the possible
of tomorrow, and then the artists of tomorrow will have to create a
new impossible. That is why we compose and work out grooves in odd
time signatures and connect radical musical movements from across the
Nejma: Hip hop has always been a
voice of the streets, where the struggle comes alive, where it is
given sonic form and soul. We tell those struggles in stories,
through lyrics. We use music to re-appropriate what’s been
appropriated, to remind ourselves and our communities of our
languages, our culture, our foods, and our bond with nature. Through
Hip hop we remember our origins and our journeys; we remember where
we’re from and we manifest where we’re going. Words are magic.
Hip hop is magic.
Halldór: Part of your name relates to the Yaqui people in Northern Mexico and their culture, which has a rich heritage of song and dance interwoven in its tradition. Where does your connection to Yaqui come from and why is it such an integral part of the collective? What do the other musicians bring into the group besides their musical talent?
Gizelxanath: My grandfather was
Yaqui and brought my father to the city where I was born, Mexicali,
when he was a year old. I grew up disconnected from the Yaqui
language and culture until I realized the importance for me to be
able to reconnect with my indigenous roots. Five years of studying
and connecting and learning about the CNI (National Indigenous
Congress, an anticapitalist pan-indigenous organization in Mexico)
allowed me an opportunity to meet water protectors from the Yaqui
Nation. It’s been a very interesting and revitalizing process which
has sparked my inspiration to write in Yoeme (the language of the
Yaqui people) alongside women and men who are at the fore front
confronting environmental disasters in the Yaqui nation. We do not
appropriate their dances nor their music. Our music is a vessel for
not only Yaqui people but also indigenous people of the world that
want to share with us their stories in their native languages to
create something new.
Ben: The Yaquis have been on the frontline of Indigenous resistance for hundreds of years. They are one of the few Indigenous nations in the Americas that had never been colonized by the Spanish [they were colonized by the Mexican state after the independence]. Now the state wants to make an example of them by destroying their peaceful, lawful resistance the “Independence Aqueduct” project, which the state is continuing to build even though Mexico’s own supreme court has ruled in favor of the Yaqui people who protested and blocked highways to stop this form of water-theft and desertification of Sonora. 100% of the album sales of Mirror Butterfly go to support Yaqui resistance through the construction of a radio station, Námakasia Radio, which will broadcast the resistant messages of the Yaqui organizers and also offer classes to the youth.
Halldór: You write in your essay, Artivism and Decolonization, that activists make up part of the collective and participate in its work. Can you explain that further?
Ben: We prioritize strengthening
movements for liberation. We are not some kind of “outside”
force, trying to “help.” We are part of those movements.
Sometimes that means playing at activist-organized events, oftentimes
donating our creative labor and building long-term solidarity. But we
go beyond that. We go to meetings, go to convergences, participates
in demonstrations or help organize solidarity. Last year we were
invited to participate at the First Mesopotamian
Water Forum in Kurdish Iraq, where we
met with water activists from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and
all over the world.
Nejma: Because not only are we spreading a message, we are practicing communal economics, maroon exchange. There are revolutionary musicians that we continue to work with and build with from all around the world. It’s one of the ways to create a liberated network, share ideas, and build strategy. The more we connect, the more self-sufficient we become, the stronger we are.
Halldór: You recently performed at an anti-fracking event in Pittsburgh where Trump attended another nearby event. How did that go? How is it to partake in smaller events or even street protests with your large ensemble?
Gizelxanath: As you noted, this was not only an anti-trump rally. It was an event of water defenders, first-nation led, to protest the fracking companies which were meeting in Pittsburgh. Trump later decided to come, but the core message was that we all must be responsible to protect water because without clean water all life on earth will collapse.
Nejma: The greatest part about
it was that a lot of First Nation brothers and sisters were there,
which is extremely crucial to our success as liberated people. It’s
our priority to connect with Original people and to connect them to
each other. We also got to connect with the local community,
especially the young people. It was important, for me personally, to
see what not to do as well, and consistently confirms that I
belong neither to the right or left, but identify with and practice a
different kind of politics altogether.
Gizelxanath: We got to see how revolutionary music breaks fascism apart.
Nejma: Yes! When Ben began to play the baritone saxophone, the arguments from the left and right sides of the street ceased to exist. That sound is revolutionary. Of course it depends how you play and what your spirit is like. No matter what people identified with, everyone was paying attention. They were all paying attention. Whether they respected the music or not, they had to pay attention. And that’s power. Power to be used righteously. That’s how we show and prove. We were called, so we showed up. We showed the right that we are in opposition to white supremacy, capitalism, rape, racism, and patriarchy! We have to show up. We inspired the youth, the elders, and those in between which creates an intergenerational experience never to be forgotten.
Ben: We had youth musicians
playing with us, such as percussionist and hip-hop artist Desmond
Rucker who is a senior in high school at CAPA. A big part of our
practice is working with youth
musicians. But we also featured in the
ensemble the Springfield Mass’s 2019 Poet Laurate,
playwright-community activist-educator, Magdalena
Gomez, who performed a new version of
her piece “Jazz
Ready.” Our ensemble spanned
generations. Being intergenerational is key because there is so much
to learn from the movements of past decades, especially before the
techno-colonization of phones. Yet mobilizing the next generation,
including its wisdom and common sense for how to respond to climate
change, racism, patriarchy, inequality, is also key. The Afro Yaqui
Music Collective’s goals and composition reflects this. And
organizing musicians is and artists and building spaces to work
together is more important, I think, than reaching some mythical
notion of the “people who need to hear our message.” People are
going to hear our work locally and globally through concrete
relationships and showing up to events, workshops, youth-run spaces,
not by diluting our message. We are a guerilla ensemble that can
break down, reform, reconceptualize and restructure based on the
context. We are like water.
Gizelxanath: We want to flow
Nejma: It takes many shapes and
forms but is always true to its nature. It serves and it nurtures. It
builds and destroys.
Ben: For instance, when we performed in Iraq at the Mesopotamian forum, we met a great clarinetist, Viktor Jara (named after the Chilean revolutionary musician) who we worked really well with and built a long relationship. So our music built a new community in sound. We also presented on the founding of the Ecosocialist International and so created a space for a shared sound and ideology.
Halldór: Protest musicians tend to encounter a problem in regards to getting their message across because many perform only at specific events. How do you reach those that mostly need to hear you message?
Nejma: Nobody is doing what we
are doing. It’s very unique and wild. We receive different
opportunities, and we take them if they make sense. Every platform is
an opportunity and every invite is an opportunity not to be wasted or
Ben: We are not careerists, but
we do perform at the highest level of performance arts spaces in the
United States because of the quality of our work. For instance, we’ve
performed at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the ASCAP Jazz
Awards, and tons of universities. We have also performed at the
US-Mexican border protesting border militarization and immigrant
detention. We exist in multiple spaces simultaneously.
Gizelxanath: We exist in the
arts world but also at the community level, at the ground level.
we were meeting with and founding the First
we performed in the Afro-Maroon Venezuelan community of Veroes, which
is very different than performing at The Red Rooster in Harlem or The
Kelly Strayhorn Theatre here in Pittsburgh, but each has its own
special opportunity to engage and evolve, and that touches more
people than we could have imagined.
Gizelxanath: What is important
to understand is that we don’t confine ourselves to a theater.
Nejma: We walk our path by using
our music for a purpose and we honor the freedom we have to do this.
Not everybody has freedom. Until everyone does, we’re not gonna
stop. If that means we fight till we die, then so be it. Reminds me
of one of my favorite quotes, “The struggle continues, and victory
is certain.” ~ Amilcar Cabral (“a luta continua e a Vitoria é
certa”) And like the fierce Magdalena Gomez says, “Don’t
waste the power of the pulpit.”
Halldór: What is on the horizon for the collective or for you as individual artists?
Nejma: Until everyone has
freedom, until everyone has clean water, until everyone understands
we have to take care of the land and return it to those who cultivate
it, until kids stop being put in cages, until we overthrow white
patriarchal rulers, until then, we’re going to continue using our
craft to speak out against injustices and inspire the youth to fight
against it, so they know they are not alone, and that we embrace our
responsibility to them and each other. That’s what those did before
us. They didn’t fight for nothing.
Ben: We continue to collaborate with community activists and revolutionary artists across the world to remind us of those who have passed us the torch to light a brighter future. Right now we are working with Magdalena Gómez on the music for a new piece about the Afro-Puerto Rican intellectual Arturo Schomburg titled: “Erased: a poetic imaging on the Life of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.” Schomburg was a pan-Africanist historian and activist who was erased from history despite collecting over 30,000 manuscripts of Black history, including slave narratives, and founding the first center for Black research which is called the Schomburg Center. The piece will have a performance at the Puerto Rican Travelling Theater (PRITT) sometime in the spring of 2020.
Gizelxanath: Additionally, we
are creating a new module of the Mirror Butterfly in Madison,
Wisconsin, in dialogue with the indigenous and migrant communities in
Halldór: Thank you for participating and for the work you do. Do you have anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
Ben: Thank you for existing. We
need platforms like these, we need to create synergy between
revolutionary writers, musicians, gardeners, scientists, everyone.
Nejma: We need to call forth all
the experts in their respective fields to use their skills in
solidarity. We all need to bring our gifts, talents, and resistance
to the table.
Gizelxanath: To use their skills
to advance the movement.