Category Archives: Music

Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid and the influence of the “musical”

I went to see Janelle Monae live for the first time on Tuesday night at the Highline Ballroom. It was her free album release party for “The ArchAndroid,” which was released earlier that day. I was definitely impressed. What I was most impressed by was her versatility. She is sometimes talked about as a little bit of James Brown mixed with a bit of Prince and Michael Jackson, influenced by rock and hip hop, especially the Atlanta-based group, OutKast (not surprising then that Big Boi, half of OutKast, is her mentor and appears on the single, Tightrope — by the way, this video is very very cool).

By versatility I mean that she draws on music from all over the last 60 years as she creates her Android record. During Tuesday night’s show, I saw at least one song each that appeared to be directly influenced by music from the decades of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. To me, that showed incredible range. Many people have mentioned this. What, however, is less mentioned is how Ms. Monae is clearly influenced by musical theater and cinematic-like productions. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the now-24-year-old first moved to New York City to  pursue a career on Broadway, first studying theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. It becomes clear after watching her perform that her sets are actually theatrical productions rooted in musical theatre: there is art direction, costumes, choreography, lights, projected video — and a wall of lushly-produced sound that incorporates pre-programmed loops. Suffice it to say, her band is incredibly tight.

And of course there is Ms. Monae herself. She is a triple threat: she can sing, rap and dance. With her own form of android-robot-like moves, she glides around the stage as light as a feather, grabbing and rocking the mic-stand at will as if she has done it her entire life. Here, one can definitely see the influence of Brown, Prince and MJ. It’s no wonder why Ms. Monae has been rocking and buzzing up the underground music scene for some time now. The ArchAndroid is really like her album debut into mainstream pop. And yes, the mainstream needs this refreshing breath of air and creativity.

My only criticism of her is quite minor. During the live show, I would have liked to see more interaction with the audience. Just some sort of give and take — like a “Here I am performing, how are you doing? Yes, I’m up on stage performing, but we’re here rocking together.” Probably largely due to her theatrical background, Ms. Monae seems quite disconnected from the audience, maintaining somewhat of a performance fourth wall. And as one of her songs from her 2007 EP, “Metropolis Suites I of IV: The Chase,” is titled, Smile, I’d like to see her do some more of that. She seems quite content to keep a permanently petrified look with wide eyes as she performs. Is she having fun up there? The question I have is: how could she not?

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Some Fall 2008 work

I’ve been plenty busy with graduate school as well as other obligations, but I just wanted to point to some of the work I did in the Fall semester at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism:

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Filed under Green/Sustainability, Media/Journalism, Music, NYC

Message in the Music

The United Nations’ 2001 World Conference Against Racism official report declares (on page 10) that (bold my emphasis):

13.    We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences;

The declaration that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity was a historic victory for the reparations movement — unfortunately, the tragic 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. came just a few days after the conference concluded in Durban, South Africa. The news from the conference was effectively buried.

Last week, a group of musicians, artists, and activists from the U.S. Virgin Islands released a roots reggae single that is sure to draw attention back to the issue of reparations in the months to come. The single, simply titled, “We Want Reparations,” will be the new anthem for the St. Croix based African-Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance (ACRRA). You can listen to the song here.

There are musicians and artists who just like making good music. Then there are musicians and artists who know that once they’ve been given the spotlight and the microphone, they have the responsibility to speak out on issues (and give their audiences information) that affect our communities and societies. This combination of music and activism is more powerful when the music (including the songs, rhythms, melodies, and vocals) and the activism (in lyrics, content, and activities outside of music) show that the musicians/artists are seeking true perfection in what they release to the public. Bottom line, the music has to be good, and the activism sincere. Put them together and you got something special.

These VI roots reggae artists fall into this latter group. Batch, Niyorah, & Danny I provide the lyrics. The music is a collaborative production of the “Zion I Kings”: a collective made up of Laurent “Tippy” Alfred of I Grade Records, “Jah David” Goldfine of Zion High Productions, and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings Productions. Excellent hornlines were provided by Celebrity Horns. Some choice lyrics:

“Look how dem profit from free African labor (African labor)/ Who built up dem cities and dem towns, laid down foundation without compensation (without compensation)/ Never giving nothing to the offsprings of the younger generation”

and:

“They make payment to the Jews, make payment to the Japanese/ Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet, and the Chinese/ Yet you don’t want to give what is due to we/ Haffi protest, petition constantly”

ACRRA says the song offers a unique merging of culture, information, and consciousness purposed to result in international awareness, community education, and activism in the territory.  ACRRA’s president, Shelley Moorhead (who is currently on a hunger strike and sit-in on the steps of St. Croix’s Government House seeking support on the issue) puts it best when he says:

“I am uncertain how many people in the world will pay a fee to come and hear me or any other leaders in the territory speak on a given subject. These young, talented local artists and musicians have crafted a ‘word + sound=power equation’ that regularly commands crowds of 10, 20, and 30,000 people in Europe, the United States, South America and the Caribbean who pay upwards of $20 USD to hear what Virgin Islanders are saying about the world’s issues. We are happy to now have them as ambassadors of the Virgin Islands Reparations Movement.”

Late Update: After two weeks, the Governor of U.S.V.I. asks Mr. Moorhead to end his protest on the steps of the Government House. Mr. Moorhead says he is not moving.

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