The Emergence of A New Black Avant-Garde: Experimental Music and Text
Over the past decade, a new wave of Black avant-garde music has been gathering momentum in New York, Philadelphia, and beyond. This wave constitutes a major new phase of the movement now commonly known as experimentalism. One of the hallmarks of this movement is the fusion of free jazz and experimental music with various forms of text, including poetry, literary works, and histories that engage deeply with African American pasts, presents, and futures. The other defining feature of this emerging wave is a direct engagement with the culture, social organizations, and politics of the era of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s.
At the forefront is sound experimentalist/saxophonist/composer Matana Roberts, who is the leader of a new generation of groundbreaking artists mentored by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Since 2011, she has released three chapters of a twelve-part project known as Coin Coin. Roberts describes Coin Coin as “an [exploration] of my own ancestry, alongside time periods in American history I am fascinated with.”
Coin Coin has been Roberts’s vehicle for experimenting with alternative modes of composition, while engaging with personal and historical narratives, recounting tales from her family’s past through stories, interviews, memories, histories, and myth. The name of the project and the focus of the first chapter was one of Roberts’s progenitors, Marie Therese Metoyer, known as Coincoin (1742–1816), a second-generation enslaved woman from colonial Louisiana who after gaining her freedom established herself as a prominent businesswoman and leader of a prominent Creole community, the Melrose Plantation. She bought freedom for some of her children and grandchildren.
Mississippi Moonchile (2013) employs interviews that Roberts conducted with her grandmother, who grew up in an impoverished community along the Mississippi River during the Great Depression and eventually moved north to the south side of Chicago during the Great Migration. Roberts delves into blues and jazz traditions in unconventional ways, while also including an operatic tenor. Her frequent turns to Bible passages, narratives from the Civil Rights era, and quoted passages from her grandmother, altogether generate a veritable quilt of African American historical memory and consciousness. River Run Thee (2015) was largely inspired by the book Dhow Chasing in Zanzibar Waters and on the East Coast of Africa: Narrative of Five Years' Experiences in the Suppression of the Slave Trade by G.L. Sullivan. Images and narratives from the book are interwoven with poetry written by Roberts's grandfather, all set to music.
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A second artist in this wave who pairs text with avant-garde musical forms is vocalist/composer Fay Victor. A straight-ahead singer in the 1990s, Victor has since created an entire vocabulary of experimental “free song” vocal improvisations employing voice as instrument. The subject matter of Victor’s work covers a wide range, but she, too, addresses historical themes. The song “Exchange Rate” discusses the process of purchasing slaves in West Africa in the eighteenth century, told through the vivid description of an African street fair. She inquires, “I see dreadlocked folks for miles with cowrie shells / in their hair and on some / earrings and necklaces / that they wear … I wonder if all the cowrie shells I see / would have been enough to pay for me / in Dahomey / in 1723?”
Another major force is Heroes Are Gang Leaders (HAGL), co-founded by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and saxophonist/composer James Brandon Lewis in 2014. Formed as a tribute to the late writer Amiri Baraka, the band is named after one of Baraka's stories. Shortly before Baraka's death in January 2014, the Lewis-Ellis duo opened for Baraka at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery in New York City. Ellis later noted, “Our preparation for that performance opened the doors, in us, to all the possibility and ways to speak and have Baraka's whole branch of the tradition speak through us.” While sitting through Baraka's funeral service, Ellis had the inspiration to form HAGL. He wrote, “I heard community and tension and traffics of living sound and struggle and loss, invention, the whole Black treasure chest in Amiri. I just didn't want to ruin it, this rare Thank You, with single-mindedness or selfishness. Amiri Baraka left us with an orchestra of us. All HAGL recordings and performances open to continue that.”
HAGL’s earliest record, The Amiri Baraka Sessions, remains unreleased. One of the goals of The Amiri Baraka Sessions was “to resurrect the matrimony of Black Literary Art and Music as medicine, battle cry, dirge, and the struggle for pleasure.” In July 2015, the band recorded The Avant-Age Garde I Ams of the Gal Luxury at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics as a tribute to beat poet Bob Kaufman. In February 2016, the band released Highest Engines Near/Near Higher Engineers, paying homage to Gwendolyn Brooks. In October 2016, the group released Flukum, honoring Etheridge Knight, Ntozake Shange, James Baldwin, and Michael S. Harper, and as Ellis noted, “Each track is an original explorative power object of sound, sense, and syncretism driving through the red traffic lights at the intersection of where poetry and jazz used to meet.”
HAGL’s trumpet player, Philadelphia-based Heru Shabaka-ra, has explored the union of music and language in another way. Since 2014, he has held one of the trumpet chairs in the Sun Ra Arkestra, in which he regards Marshall Allen as the high priest of the Sun Ra spiritual tradition. Stemming from university studies in African and African American literature, he asks, “How is meaning inscribed in words and how has language served as the foundation of culture?” From his study of linguistics, he has developed a sophisticated poetic practice, using a type of proto-language. While one might identify it as a form of scatting, Shabaka-ra thinks of it rather as a form of communication derived from the roots of human language, employing the derivations or root syllables of words to get at a common language that existed prior to its splintering into distinct modern languages. He recites these poetic renderings in proto-language, intermixed with lines from the writings of Sun Ra in English, while performing with HAGL or with his own band, Sirius JuJu.
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Another Philadelphia-based artist to have a major impact is Moor Mother, whose debut record, Fetish Bones, released in September, has received critical acclaim. In an interview I conducted with her, she stated, “Free jazz to me is the beginning and its expansion. It is the chants on top of foot stomps and hand claps. It is the scripture over top of the choir. Free jazz is what’s needed to travel. It is the sound of protest, of peace and of sorrow all at the same time. You cannot go to war without a drum, you cannot time travel or seek outer and inner dimensions without free jazz. Alice Coltrane music is a liberation technology, Sun Ra music is a liberation technology. That’s why I love Amiri Baraka so much. He put jazz into the poetry because if you need to go to a certain place that is the only way. I use a lot of free jazz in my music because it just expands what I am saying and takes it to a deeper level.”
Moor Mother is a scholar and practitioner of Black Quantum Futurism (BQF), which she describes as “a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that future’s reality. This vision and practice derives its facets, tenets, and qualities from quantum physics, futurist traditions, and Black/African cultural traditions of consciousness, time, and space. Under a BQF intersectional time orientation, the past and future are not cut off from the present—both dimensions have influence over the whole of our lives, who we are and who we become at any particular point in space-time.” Moor Mother’s piece, “Creation Myth,” is a time-traveling foray through a series of race riots from 1866 to the present told from a first-person perspective through which she is bloodied, loses her limbs, and barely survives to arrive in Ferguson, Missouri, while recounting many of the fallen who did not survive. The lyrics are a call to witness, but also a call to action, and one that demands dignity for Black bodies.
Moor Mother’s work is informed by her street-based photographic practice for which she focuses on neighborhoods that are being demolished. Her work brings to life people often living in challenging circumstances like the Washington Park neighborhood of Aberdeen, Maryland where she grew up. She declared, “Just speaking my truth makes it political because of the systematic oppression that is happening in this country. Even if I am not trying to be political, my story just is political.” Throughout her work, Moor Mother crafts lyrics that speak of class war, resistance to violence, and day-to-day oppression. Much of her music feels suppressed, like a weight is placed on the sounds themselves and she is pushing upwards and outwards against it.
Different forms of meaning—experimental language and sound, the blending of history and myth, the poetic tradition reimagined, and the past-present-future continuum—are all defining features of the new Black avant-garde crafted by some of the most talented artists currently working in these volatile times.