Archive For The “Music” Category

Lil Nas X Embraces Black Queer Sexuality — And Becomes An ‘Industry Baby’

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Lil Nas X Embraces Black Queer Sexuality — And Becomes An ‘Industry Baby’

NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with New York Times writer Jazmine Hughes about the unique pop stardom Lil Nas X is creating for himself.


ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the weekend, we got a snapshot of where part of the music industry stands right now on LGBT issues. The music festival Lollapalooza dropped rapper DaBaby from its lineup after he made homophobic remarks. And at the same time, the top two spots on YouTube’s music video charts were both held by Lil Nas X, an artist whose videos unapologetically embrace queer Black sexuality. Those two singles are a big shift from his first viral chart-topper, this earworm from 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OLD TOWN ROAD”)

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Yeah, I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road. I’m gonna ride till I can’t no more.

SHAPIRO: This shift in his artistry may also be part of a bigger change in the music industry. Jazmine Hughes explored that in a profile of Lil Nas X for the New York Times magazine. I asked her how Lil Nas X is paving the way for longevity.

JAZMINE HUGHES: At some point during our time together, we were sitting at lunch, and I asked him, how much of your life is dedicated to proving people wrong? And he said, almost all of it, right?

SHAPIRO: Almost all of it.

HUGHES: So I think that it’s easy to look at “Old Town Road,” which we know is a huge viral success because he recorded the song, attached it to memes, went viral on TikTok, and then it sort of blew up. It’s easy to look at that and think that this was all a lucky mistake, right? But he did this all incredibly intentionally. What’s funny about Nas is that, like, before he became a successful musician, he was a Barb. He was like a soldier and a Nicki Minaj online stan, right? So he spent all of his waking hours online. I mean, there are some points in high school where…

SHAPIRO: Like, learning the rules of social media battle.

HUGHES: Kind of like forming the rules of social media battle. But there were times where he was spending, like, 18, 19 hours a day online, so he knows the internet better than, I think, most people in this world do. So yes, he had, like, this incredible stroke of luck when it came to “Old Town Road” and everything that came with it, but I don’t know. There’s a lot of intention there that I think that…

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

HUGHES: …Sometimes people discount.

SHAPIRO: Let’s talk a little about his latest video, “Industry Baby.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “INDUSTRY BABY”)

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) Baby back, ay. Couple racks, ay.

SHAPIRO: Can you just briefly describe it in a way that’s safe for public radio?

HUGHES: (Laughter) Yes. So for a video he released earlier this year called “Montero,” a promotional item he released were these Nikes called Satan Shoes, which purported to have a drop of human blood in them. He made 666 pairs. And so this newest music video, “Industry Baby,” is about, like, what happens after Lil Nas X, like, you know, pretends to lose this lawsuit, and then he goes to jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “INDUSTRY BABY”)

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) I blew up. Now everybody trying to sue me. You call me Nas, but the hood call me Doobie. Yeah. And this one is for the champions…

SHAPIRO: And has a lot of sex in jail.

HUGHES: We’re all familiar with, like, what might happen to people, particularly men, when they’re in prison with a bunch of other men. So, you know, what Nas has done over the course of his admittedly short career is to take what seems like a punishment and turn it on its head and say, what if I actually had the best time?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “INDUSTRY BABY”)

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) You was never really rooting for me anyway. When I’m back up at the top, I want to hear you say, he don’t run from nothing, dog. Get your soldiers. Tell them that the break is over.

SHAPIRO: I mean, you talk about turning punishment into celebration. That’s also what happened in his previous monster hit video this summer, “Montero,” where he, like, goes to hell and gyrates on Satan’s lap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)”)

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Call me when you want. Call me when you need. Call me in the morning. I’ll be on the way. Call me when you want. Call me when you need. Call me out by your name. I’ll be on the way like…

HUGHES: So Nas grew up with the church being part of his life, right? His father is a gospel singer, and there was a point where he was going to church every Sunday. And so he’s no stranger to the variety of outcomes that queer people are often told by homophobes or, you know, like, quote, unquote, “people who really care” about what might happen to him – whether he goes to hell, whether he’ll go to jail or he’ll do this, that and the third.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)”)

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Champagne and drinking with your friends – you live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend. I’m not fazed, only here to sin. If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can. Call me when you want. Call me when you need. Call me in the morning. I’ll be on the way.

HUGHES: And so what he has done with “Industry Baby” and also with “Montero” is, again, to say, like, what if I took the thing that all these people have been, you know, warning me about my entire life and then carried it on to its logical end? It’s almost like he’s saying, homophobes don’t actually have that great of an imagination, and I do. So yeah, you can tell me I’m going to go to hell, but you haven’t told me what’s going to happen when I get there, and that is for me to fill in.

SHAPIRO: He’s young. He’s only 22. And you spent a lot of time with him. Did you get the sense that the facade of being impervious to all the homophobia and hatred – that it ever drops? Like, do you get the sense that it ever actually gets to him?

HUGHES: Oh, absolutely. I think that he has an incredible team of people around him. He has, you know, a few older Black women who I think are really sort of, like, big sisters to him, that are in his team but are also his best friends that keep him humble. But also he’s, like, a 22-year-old living in Los Angeles, right? So he’s, like, doing all the healthy mindfulness things that I think…

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HUGHES: …You and I would do if we were, like, 22-year-old gazillionaires (ph). So he, like, reads a lot of self-help books, and he, like, spends a lot of time with his family. And he is, like, a really thoughtful, generous, well-grounded person, almost to, like, an astounding degree. So while I think it bothers him, as it would bother anyone – and I’ve had, like, a peek at the sort of reactions he gets online – I really do think that he has a solid protective measure against this.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that he honed his social media skills by being part of Nicki Minaj’s online army before he became famous. And he’s been using those skills on Twitter all summer long. I want to read something that he wrote in response to a person who has since deleted their tweet. But this person basically listed a bunch of artists who were not as vocal about their sexual orientation, from Elton John to Queen Latifah, and kind of said, you know, why can’t you be more like them? And Lil Nas X said this – many, if all, of these artists had to hide their sexuality for the majority of their career. You seem to only respect gay artists when the gay part is tucked away. You don’t like me because I embrace my sexuality instead of hiding it and never speaking on it for your comfort. What does that tell you about the kind of pop star he’s trying to become?

HUGHES: I think there’s been all this undue attention paid to whether or not he’s a one-hit wonder. But what I actually think is really phenomenal about Lil Nas X is this particular thing – right? – where he is a gay pop star who’s come out at the height of his fame or – you know, for all we know, he could somehow get even bigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HOLIDAY”)

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) Man, I snuck into the game – came in on a horse. I pulled a gimmick. I admit it. I got no remorse.

HUGHES: But people like Elton John – you know, Elton came out towards, like, the tail end of his career. George Michael came out way at the end of his career. We have so many gay pop stars but so few openly gay pop stars and even fewer gay pop stars who are explicitly sexual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HOLIDAY”)

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) And I’m sexy. They want to sweat me.

HUGHES: We have people like Sam Smith or we have people like Troye Sivan who make their queer identity part of their art. But what Lil Nas X does is he makes gay sex just as part of his entire persona as a, you know, name literally any straight pop star ever.

SHAPIRO: Jazmine Hughes is a staff writer for The New York Times magazine.

Thank you so much.

HUGHES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HOLIDAY”)

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) It’s another way. All my hittas (ph) on go and I hope that you know it. I can’t even close my eyes, and I don’t know why. Guess I don’t like surprises. I can’t even stay away from the game that I play. They gon’ know us today. Yeah. Man, I snuck into the game – came in on a horse. I pulled a gimmick. I admit it. I got no remorse. Nobody tried to let me in. Nobody opened doors. I kicked them down. They didn’t have a choice. Dun dun dun (ph). They tried to next me, ay, but I’m blessed, see. Ay, no flex, but my checks giving vet tease.

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Billie Eilish Can’t Wait To See The Future

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Billie Eilish Can’t Wait To See The Future

Billie Eilish’s second album, Happier than Ever, is out now.

Courtesy of the artist

Courtesy of the artist

Billie Eilish has a message for the world: “I’m not your friend / Or anything, damn / You think that you’re the man / I think, therefore, I am.” Still just 19, the pop supernova has spent the past few years living a very public life. She’s won seven Grammys over two consecutive years, run circles around her peers on the Billboard Hot 100 and become a figure of discussion and scrutiny, some of it perhaps a little too familiar.

Her second full-length album, Happier than Ever, is out now. Like its predecessor, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, it’s a collaboration with her brother and producer, Finneas O’Connell. But after a career debut like few others, Eilish’s style is evolving: new sounds (including a detour into bossa nova-inspired grooves), a new visual toolkit and lyrics shaped by experiences as a very young woman on a worldwide stage.

Eilish spoke with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about where Happier than Ever finds her and her outlook on life, fame and performance. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Lulu Garcia-Navarro: You had huge success with your first album, and there’s always a lot of pressure for a second album after something like that. Did you feel that way?

What’s funny is, for the making of the album, I felt no pressure. I wasn’t worried; I was super confident. I really felt that I did the best that I possibly could have done with a second album: I didn’t stay exactly doing the same thing, but I also didn’t change into something else, I grew. I thought that that was really good. It was when I started releasing music from the album, putting out singles, that suddenly I was like, “Wait.”

[Laughs] “People are going to listen to this?”

Yeah! “People are going to listen and tell me how they feel now? No!” But, it’s OK. It’s really just about me liking it, and the real fans liking it. That’s all I care about.

This album is called Happier than Ever. So, how are you: Are you happier than ever? Why did you call it that?

I mainly wanted a title for my album to be, like, un-mispronounceable. I feel that was a strong, easy to pronounce, easy to say, can’t-get-it-wrong title. [But the song it’s named after] is one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s one of my most important songs I’ve ever written.

Tell me why. What is it about this song?

Do you ever want to say something to somebody for a really long time? You don’t really know what you want to say or how to say it — and then maybe you have a conversation with somebody else, or you think a little bit about it, and you figure out what it is you’ve been trying to say for this entire period of time? That’s how it felt: That was the entire writing process, that was the recording process. Everything involved in this song felt like how it feels when you finally find the words for something.

Is it about a particular person, or just more about that feeling when you actually understand something about a relationship that you’ve had?

I mean, obviously it’s about somebody, but it’s also really about a feeling, and kind of a realization. I just mainly hope that people listen to this and go, “Oh, yeah — that’s what I’m trying to say.”

YouTube

You are now 19, and you’ve been in the public eye for a while. Tell me about the song “OverHeated.”

You can kind of understand it by just listening, I would say. I think it was just a moment of being really pissed off as a young woman in the public eye: You know, it’s infuriating. It’s hard enough to be a young woman not in the public eye, and just have lots of public eyes looking at you … let alone being famous and having a million people look at you constantly. I think it’s just thoughts coming from a place of fury and unfairness and just feeling angry at the world and society, I guess.

What have you learned about coping with that glare, though? I mean, what do you do to remain you?

I honestly don’t know. I think that there’s not much you can do. … It’s like, if you’re at the dentist getting your wisdom teeth done, and they give you anesthesia and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to fall asleep, I’m not going to fall asleep,’ you can’t not fall asleep. … I think that you just have to keep going and not not be scared of living, I guess. And I wish I would take my own advice in that realm of just like, it doesn’t matter. You can change, and you can change your mind, which I think the internet forgets.

And I mean, you are changing: You’ve changed your look recently, you are experimenting with different types of music on this album. I want to ask about your aesthetic, how you see clothes and appearance playing into your art — and if you see that as part of the music, and how you interact with people who love your music.

With aesthetics and eras of a musician or an artist, it’s all just for the eye. It’s not really real. I guess that you can change your look to try to change yourself, for sure. But in terms of album promo, and the photo shoots being a certain style — that doesn’t change you. It’s just a choice for something that you wanted to accomplish visually, you know? I did the same thing for my first album: I chose to have a look and an aesthetic and a style for that album specifically, and all of the shoots and stuff involved in the videos, I wanted that to be kind of creepy, more like horror and dark and in the theme of monsters under your bed.

For this one, I wanted the theme of old Hollywood and beautiful and classy. It’s just funny that people see new photo shoots and immediately think that you’re a different person. I see people call me Blonde Billie — like, “Blonde Billie said this, but Green Billie didn’t say this.” And I’m like, what the hell? I’m not a category of a person. I’m the same person, for my whole life. I like this thing this time, and I like this thing that time.

To that point, the song “Not My Responsibility” is saying something similar with its title — which is, whatever you see is about you, not me. Am I right in understanding it that way?

Yeah, for sure. And that goes for so many different things. It goes for all women who wear what they want and a man says, “Oh, don’t expect me to not harass you if you’re wearing that.” It’s like, no — that’s your responsibility to not harass me. It’s nobody’s responsibility to cover themself or restrict or restrain themself for somebody else’s, like, weak willpower. It’s not our job.

There’s a lot about womanhood in this album and exactly what you’re talking about, the ways in which it can be twisted, the ways it can be taken advantage of. When the song “Your Power” was released, I sent it to a bunch of my female friends and relatives, because I think it speaks to something that a lot of girls and women have dealt with. When did you start to realize that every girl, every woman, has a story where they were sort of taken advantage of?

I don’t even know when I realized it. The song is kind of from the perspective, like … this wasn’t an actual situation of my life, but I thought it would be interesting to write it as if it was me talking to somebody that I was friends with or in my family, or somebody that I knew, and they were abusing their power. And I was having a like, heart-to-heart with them, trying to tell them not to.

It’s about many, many different situations that I’ve witnessed. Some lines are about my life, some lines are about things that I’ve seen, some lines are just general things that I’ve noticed about women being taken advantage of. And it’s a crazy thing and I wish that when I was younger I had a song like this to listen to.

YouTube

We should say, there are also happy songs here — about love, the good part of connecting, the sort of empowering part of being with someone. I want to actually go to Billie Bossa Nova because I used to live in Brazil, so I was real happy to hear this. Have you been to Brazil?

No, I haven’t!

Oh, you gotta go.

It’s like the main place that I should go. The first fan account I ever had was Billie Eilish Brazil. For real.

Oh, wow.

I have a very special place in my heart for Brazil. I wanted to pay respect to bossa nova and Brazil and just the entire culture around it cause I love it so much. I don’t know, I just love a little feel-good, you know, move around feeling, sexy little song.

And you’ve just made a lot of people in Brazil happy, I can tell you right now … The last thing I want to talk about is “My Future.” In this song, there’s a line that says, “I’m in love with my future / Can’t wait to meet her.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it; it’s a really interesting line. Why did you write it?

Thank you. I love that line, too. I think it means a lot of things. I think that the most straightforward meaning is the future me, the future person that I’m going to be — but also the future world that I’m going to live in and the future friends I’m going to have and the future people that I’m going to surround myself with. It’s really about not wishing away the present and the past and wishing you were in the future, but just being hopeful and content with the idea of change. And I can’t wait to see what it holds.

Well, what do you want now? I mean, you kind of conquered the world in every possible way. When you look at that, what do you want?

Good question. I want joy and content with myself. I want to feel better about myself, and more, I guess, proud of who I am. I don’t know what my future holds, but I really want to do shows — that’s the main thing that I hope and see for myself.

What does that do for you, when you’re out performing?

There is no feeling like the feeling on stage in front of people that just truly adore you and that you adore, just looking at you and you looking back at them. … I don’t ever feel like I’m above anyone when I’m on stage: I feel like one with them, and I feel like I want to impress them and just have fun with them. I never want to spend this much time away from doing shows ever again, thank you very much.

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Ravi Told George, They Told The World: The Birth Of The Celebrity Benefit Concert

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Ravi Told George, They Told The World: The Birth Of The Celebrity Benefit Concert

George Harrison performs at the Concert for Bangladesh, held at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971 in New York City. Asked why he joined in organizing the event, he said, “Because I was asked by a friend if I’d help, that’s all.”

Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

George Harrison was one of the biggest rock stars on the planet in 1971 but there was no bravado in his voice as he lent his celebrity to discuss a global crisis. Sitting at a press conference that opens the performance film, The Concert for Bangladesh, he was asked why, out of all of the crises in the world, he assembled a benefit for refugees from what was then East Pakistan.

In a tone reflecting why he was dubbed “the quiet Beatle,” Harrison responded simply, “Because I was asked by a friend if I’d help, that’s all.”

That friend was legendary Indian musician Ravi Shankar.

They put together an all-star concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971 to help Bengali refugees who’d fled violence and were in India. Its immediate impact and lasting influence became far larger than Harrison’s soft demeanor implied. Pop artists became looked upon as more than just entertainers during the late 1960s/early 1970s, and this was the first large-scale pop music event to benefit a major human rights issue.

YouTube

The impact of the two sold-out performances of the Concert for Bangladesh (along with the accompanying album and film) set the tone for all-star charity events that have followed. Some musician organizers built on the model in their own way and have used newer tools such as social media to raise awareness for myriad causes. But major performances still have the ability to gain more attention and retain viewers longer than Tweets, TikToks or Facebook posts.

Rallying The Fan Base

An ad for George Harrison’s single “Bangla Desh” from the August 7, 1971 edition of Billboard magazine.

Billboard

Billboard

Perhaps most crucially, the Concert for Bangladesh showed that celebrities could tap into their fan base to make Western audiences more attentive to geographically distant issues.

At the time, the plight in South Asia was dire. During the spring of 1971, the Pakistani army suppressed a democratic Bengali movement for autonomy in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), killing hundreds of thousands. Millions more fled into refugee camps in India. Harrison’s Indian sitar guru, Ravi Shankar, who was Bengali, told the guitarist about the situation.

Shankar credits the concert for heightening awareness of this strife. “Overnight, everybody knew the name of Bangladesh all over the world,” he said in the 2005 DVD of The Concert for Bangladesh documentary from 1972. “Because it came out in all the newspapers everywhere. So it had a tremendous value to it.”

While Harrison and Shankar said their motives were not political, they did cause consternation among Pakistani’s military regime and its enablers in the United States, according to Gary J. Bass’ historical account, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. Pakistani officials were angered at the attention the concert, album and Harrison’s “Bangla Desh” single brought to atrocities that they were perpetuating.

President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — who skirted a U.S. military aid cutoff and authorized arms to Pakistan during a brief war with India over the situation — were also chagrined. Bass reported that Nixon privately railed at the concert funds going to “the goddamn Indians.”

A Deeper Look

Musicians who have staged charity events since the Concert for Bangladesh have looked into the causes of the crises that they are addressing. Jamie Drummond co-founded the global anti-poverty foundation ONE with Irish rock singer Bono. He said the mid-1980s Live Aid events — inspired by Harrison’s concert and headlined by a huge roster of stars ranging from Queen to Madonna — caused that event’s organizer Bob Geldof, as well as the U2 star, to look closer at international debt relief. Drummond showed how countries like Ethiopia could not purchase adequate food when saddled with crushing international financial obligations.

“Concerts, show biz for good causes go so far, and fundraising goes so far, but you have to get at the structural causes of the problems,” Drummond said. “That requires engaging a bit more in politics.”

Bob Ferguson, who manages creative alliances and music outreach for Oxfam, said providing information and education on all of these issues is key to his organization’s partnerships with such celebrities as Australian singer Courtney Barnett and pop band Lucius for COVID relief.

“The heaviest part of my job is being able to make sure people are aware of exactly of what is going on,” Ferguson said. “I prefer that our artists are wholly aware of anything they get involved with with us, and we have the luxury of being able to connect artists with experts in the field. An artist wanted to know about our work in Darfur, and we could connect her with somebody in refugee camps in Darfur in 15 minutes.”

For an organization like ONE, which strives to be nonpartisan, it’s also important to work with everyone from American conservatives to French socialists to find common ground on such issues as COVID mitigation, climate change and girls’ education.

“Compromise doesn’t have to be a dirty word,” Drummond said. “Sometimes the best ideas emerge from a tussle between different [political] sides and emerge in the middle. We got debt cancellation done and an historic AIDS initiative thanks to bipartisan American leadership.”

December 1971: Singer-songwriter George Harrison at the Royal Festival Hall with Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, during the time Harrison helped to organize the ‘Concert for Bangladesh’.

Evening Standard via Getty Images

Evening Standard via Getty Images

Watching Out For Egos — And Paying Attention To Details

Harrison’s genial personality set an example for Western musicians who want to present themselves as using their fame for a larger good. That is not always the case in an industry filled with massive egos, some of whom may use charitable appearances just to burnish their own reputations.

Oxfam has become aware of how some artists may not have altruistic goals when they approach the organization, according to Ferguson. “We have to be on our toes to sniff out opportunities that are more about rehabilitating an artist’s reputation rather than being helpful,” he said. “It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. So there’s a vetting process to make sure we’re working with people who want to work with us. Music fans can smell a marketing idea or project easily these days.”

Musicians who follow Harrison’s model also need to be aware of the not-so-glamorous bureaucratic chores involved with raising and distributing large amounts of money. While his concert raised more than $243,000 for UNICEF, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service held up millions from subsequent record sales because the event’s organizers had not applied for nonprofit status (that issue has been resolved). Drummond said artist-run charities need to always take such operational sides of fundraising seriously.

And the impact can be tremendous. In the case of the Bangladesh concert, its legacy continues to help around the world to this day via the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF. “There’s no point in getting the show biz right and then getting the actual delivery of the thing you’ve done the show for wrong,” Drummond said. “The good news is if you are a celebrity in this area there have never been more people wanting to help you. There are more cottage industries now definitely helping influential people with philanthropy and advocacy.”

The Right Music, The Right Tone

Even though Harrison along with his British and American rock star friends drove ticket sales for the Concert for Bangladesh, Shankar’s opening performance meant music from the impacted region was represented. Such inclusion is crucial for showing a people’s culture is always far more than their victimization. Drummond said that he is looking to include more African musicians — as well as African athletes and movie stars —in events that focus on that continent.

The Tibetan musicians who performed in last year’s Tibet House Benefit Concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall are one example of such involvement. That diversity also inspires audiences’ active participation, according to Ferguson. He added that this involvement could be at any level, from signing a petition to joining an organization.

“The Tibet house concerts at Carnegie opened with a prayer, a lengthy chant from monks,” Ferguson said. “So you knew right then and there that this is for real, that you’ll be there not only for some interesting music but leave ready to take some action.”

Aaron Cohen is the author of Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power (University of Chicago Press) and Amazing Grace (Bloomsbury). He teaches humanities and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and regularly writes about the arts for such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader and DownBeat.

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On ‘Outside Child,’ Allison Russell Confronts Trauma With Compassion

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On ‘Outside Child,’ Allison Russell Confronts Trauma With Compassion

Allison Russell

Marc Baptiste/Courtesy of the artist

Marc Baptiste/Courtesy of the artist

  • “Nightflyer”
  • “4th Day Prayer”
  • “Persephone”
  • “The Runner”

Music heals. Allison Russell is a great example of that.

The singer-songwriter has been part of several musical projects, including Po’ Girl and Birds of Chicago. Most recently, Russell was involved with folk group Our Native Daughters, where she was able to dispel a massive writer’s block.

New songs came out in a torrent. The result is Outside Child, an album that lays bare both personal and intergenerational abuse. Despite creating art from trauma, Russell is strengthened by love, connection and creation. The blues stirs the soul, bringing with it catharsis and joy.

Listen to the conversation and performance via the audio player above.

World Cafe: 7/19/21

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Britney Spears Says She Will Not Perform Under Her Father’s Conservatorship

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Britney Spears Says She Will Not Perform Under Her Father’s Conservatorship

Protesters attend a #FreeBritney Rally at Stanley Mosk Courthouse on Wednesday in Los Angeles. The group is calling for an end to the 13-year conservatorship led by the pop star’s father, Jamie Spears, who has control over her finances and business dealings.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Britney Spears says that as long as her father is in charge of conservatorship, she will not be performing “anytime soon.”

Britney Spears made the declaration in the caption of a photo posted to her Instagram account. The artist also addressed people commenting on her videos that frequently feature Britney dancing to music in her home.

“For those of you who choose to criticize my dancing videos … look I’m not gonna be performing on any stages anytime soon with my dad handling what I wear, say, do, or think!!!!” she said in her post.

The artist went on to say that she’s performed the past 13 years under her conservatorship and was not allowed to add new songs or have direction of her shows.

“I’d much rather share videos YES from my living room instead of onstage in Vegas where some people were so far gone they couldn’t even shake my hand and I ended up getting a contact high from weed all the time … which I didn’t mind but it would have been nice to be able to go to the mother f***ing spa,” she wrote.

What Britney Spears said in her conservatorship hearing in June

Her post is the latest statement Spears has made regarding the ongoing legal battle over the conservatorship that’s been in place since 2008.

On June 23, Spears addressed a Los Angeles Superior Court judge asking for an end to the conservatorship that has removed almost all autonomy from her personal and professional life. Parts of the audio from her statement were leaked, including allegations that her team forced her to get an IUD and keep it in place despite her desire to have more children.

Spears also said that her handlers sought retribution after she said she didn’t want to do another show run in Las Vegas. She alleges they worked with her doctor to change her medication and forced her to go to a rehabilitation program in Beverly Hills.

Though Judge Brenda Penny denied Spears’ request to remove her father, Jamie Spears, from the conservatorship in June, Britney was given clearance to hire her own lawyer to represent her in the case. This came after her court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, requested to resign from the case.

Britney Spears’ new lawyer, Hollywood lawyer Mathew Rosengart, said during a hearing last week that he would file a petition to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship. The case is set to continue in September.

Her dad isn’t the only person Britney is frustrated with

In her post on Saturday, Britney went on to address other instances that have bothered her over the years, including her younger sister Jamie Lynn Spears performing Britney’s songs at award shows and the inclusion of “humiliating moments from the past” in documentaries. She also said she was hurt and let down by her support system.

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“I don’t like that my sister showed up at an awards show and performed MY SONGS to remixes !!!!! My so-called support system hurt me deeply !!!! This conservatorship killed my dreams … so all I have is hope and hope is the only thing in this world that is very hard to kill … yet people still try !!!! I didn’t like the way the documentaries bring up humiliating moments from the past … I’m way past all that and have been for a long time !!!!”

Spears ended the post by saying that people didn’t have to follow her on the app and suggested reading a book as an alternative activity for those inclined to criticize her performances.

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We Should Tell Stories Of Black Joy: Will Liverman Talks With Lara Downes

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We Should Tell Stories Of Black Joy: Will Liverman Talks With Lara Downes

Credit: NPR

In Februrary, Will Liverman released his album Dreams of a New Day. It’s a beautiful collection of art songs by Black composers, many in world premiere recordings, that chart the peaks and valleys of the Black American experience, celebrating hope and joy, but too often chronicling pain, violence and loss.

The opening track is a setting by composer Damien Sneed of Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World,” in which the poet writes: “A world I dream where black or white, / Whatever race you be, / Will share the bounties of the earth / And every man is free.”

That dream — a dream deferred — took on urgency and energy in recent years, bringing millions together in the streets of our cities. And those of us who express this dream through music have also come together, lifting our voices in a crescendo that asks for one simple thing: just to be heard. When we choose, as Will and I both have, to uncover the forgotten music of Black composers like Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, and H. Leslie Adams, when we collaborate with Black composers of our own generation to create new work, we do it because we want our own stories to be heard, and we want to tell them in our own way.

Next season, Will stars in the first opera by a Black composer ever performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera — a dream come true, for him and for the many singers before him who never had that chance. And he’s writing his own opera, The Factotum, a joyous reimagining of Rossini‘s The Barber of Seville that’s set in a modern-day Black barbershop on Chicago’s South Side, with a score that draws on hip-hop, R&B and gospel as well as classic opera. He’s realizing the dream of telling his own story, to be heard in a new way, for a new day.

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Biz Markie, Pioneering Beatboxer And ‘Just A Friend’ Rapper, Dies At 57

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Biz Markie, Pioneering Beatboxer And ‘Just A Friend’ Rapper, Dies At 57

Biz Markie, in an undated photo from the early years.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Biz Markie, an American original born Marcel Theo Hall and a larger-than-life hip-hop figure, has died at the age of 57. Known widely for a career spanning back to 1986, Hall went on to become a beloved cultural figure later in life, celebrated for his spirited personality as much as his massive 1989 hit, “Just A Friend.” His death was confirmed by his manager, Jenni D. Izumi.

“We are grateful for the many calls and prayers of support that we have received during this difficult time,” Izumi told NPR via email. “Biz created a legacy of artistry that will forever be celebrated by his industry peers and his beloved fans whose lives he was able to touch through music, spanning over 35 years.”

Hall had reportedly been ill for months, but Izumi did not provide an official cause of death.

Biz came of age when rap was still young; a free-for-all in terms of approach and style, an era that seemed innocent yet was wildly progressive. He was born in Harlem before moving to Long Island in his early teens. An early introduction for those outside of New York, at least on film, was best captured in the 1986 Dutch hip-hop documentary, Big Fun in the Big Town. In it, we see a tall, lanky beatboxer in a hat emblazoned with big letters spelling out “Biz Markie.” He’s effusive onstage with fellow crewmate, Roxanne Shanté. They’re doing exuberant back-and-forth routines as the camera zooms in on Biz, showcasing the innate ease at which he can pack a party and move a crowd through his voice and natural presence.

In this Dutch documentary, filmed at the opening of hip-hop’s golden age, Markie beatboxes for fellow Juice Crew member and Queensbridge native Roxanne Shanté. (Video will play at the beginning of their performance.)

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He was an early standout in the Juice Crew, a dazzling collective led by producer Marley Marl, a visionary who assembled a team so adept and rich in character it would only be rivaled in the modern age by the otherworldliness of Wu-Tang Clan. The crew, whose affiliates were mostly out of Queensbridge, was founded by radio DJ Mr. Magic and subsequently placed on Tyrone Williams’ record label, Cold Chillin’ Records. Their first release, 1984’s “Roxanne’s Revenge,” was produced by Marley and featured a 15-year-old Roxanne Shante. The charismatic release became a hit and is largely responsible for Juice Crew’s early strides.

The young proto-supergroup consisted of several eventual greats — Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace, MC Shan and others. They were the vanguard of their day, a formidable team who emboldened the new school amid rap’s explosive mid-’80s popularity. Each member possessed distinct traits. If Kane was the dancing playboy and G Rap the hustler, Biz was the jester, the comic relief in a crew of serious rhyme experts. His delivery was never as dexterous as the others, but he’d use props and costumes to exploit his size, pushed the mic into his neck while beatboxing and made himself the butt of jokes. In a world of braggadocio, his self-deprecation was a refreshing contrast, decidedly humble, a theme he never strayed too far from for the rest of his career. He’s warmly dubbed by many as hip-hop’s “clown prince.”

Biz’s first official solo album was 1988’s Goin’ Off, a debut produced by Marley Marl, anchored by singles that remain among his best; “Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz,” “Nobody Beats the Biz,” as well as “Vapors,” a hilarious four-verse tale of success and envy that proved to be a hit. In the song’s final stanza, he endearingly laments: “I say, ‘Can I be down, champ?’ They said ‘No!’ and treated me like a wet food stamp.”


Cold Chillin’ Records
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The Biz Never Sleeps, his sophomore effort, generated not only Markie’s most-known song, but also one of rap’s most enduring, “Just A Friend.” It brilliantly sampled Freddie Scott’s “You Got What I Need” and became his biggest single, eventually charting at No. 9 on Billboard. In the music video, Biz dons a powdered wig, gloriously impersonating Mozart on the piano. It was a story-rap about constant rejection, bolstered by an earworm of a chorus. Biz is pictured weeping on the cover of the 12-inch single; big frown, handkerchief and all.

From left: Comedian and actor Tracy Morgan, Biz Markie and actor Samuel L. Jackson, photographed on July 14, 2004 in Los Angeles.

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

I Need A Haircut, the followup to Biz Never Sleeps, is largely remembered for a court decision on copyright law: Singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan sued Biz and his record label, Warner Bros., for unauthorized usage of his 1972 hit, “Alone Again (Naturally).” The result was a landmark decision that tightened sampling laws thereafter, making all future rap (and all music) releases adhere to stringent licensing rules. Copies of I Need A Haircut were pulled from store shelves, making it a disappointment, despite bright moments— chief among them “Alone Again,” the song that got them in trouble and left the entire industry shook. His next release was impishly titled, All Samples Cleared!

As the ’90s came to an end, it was clear that Biz had been ingrained within hip-hop, but also beyond. He had admirers, including the Beastie Boys, who featured him on three of their projects; Check Your Head (1992), Ill Communication (1994) and Hello Nasty (1998). He was sampled by the Rolling Stones on “Anybody Seen My Baby,” where his vocals were added to the song’s middle sequence. He also appeared on reality TV (Celebrity Fit Club) and on pop radio in songs like Len’s “Beautiful Day” from 1999.

Biz’s final studio album, Weekend Warrior, arrived in 2003 and saw him working with producers 45 King and J-Zone, but he made the lion’s share of beats. A prominent appearance by P. Diddy affirmed his ennobled status. The album includes a charming late-era track (“Chinese Food”), in which he eulogizes Aaliyah and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez in the intro, before listing all his favorite Chinese dishes in the chorus.

He appeared in the movies too, playing an intercosmic version of himself in Men In Black II. On television, he had a recurring role on the music-centric kid’s program, Yo Gabba Gabba! In a charming segment called “Biz’s Beat of the Day” he does short instructionals on how to beatbox, often in costume. He also opened for Chris Rock on his No Apologies tour. There were popular t-shirts that widely sold with his face and now famous reactionary quip, “Oh Snap!” When his fandom was at an all-time high, dolls with his likeness, cereal boxes and action figures all became collectable items.

Until word of his recent hospitalization in late July of 2020, you could find Biz on social media, posting toys from his collection or playing 45s while dressed in a onesie. He still toured and did legacy shows and guest appearances seemingly often. He’d post show flyers, vintage ones that felt historical or current ones from tech conventions. There’s also pictures of him and fellow legends like Slick Rick and Rakim. His behemoth grin and comedic energy intact, vital as it was in that aforementioned 1986 Dutch documentary.

In 2005, an independent rapper named Edan predicted the coming of this awful day through a track called “Funky Voltron,” saying: “‘Cause when the beats sound iffy and the kids bark live / It’ll be a sad day like when the Bizmark dies.” For over 30 years Biz projected joie di vivre easily through humor that was always wholesome and good spirited. His artistry felt inclusive, he wanted us to laugh, to be entertained by his toys and record collection and beats and songs and jokes and the faces he’d make. And we were.

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Willow, ‘naïve’

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Willow, ‘naïve’


MSFTSMusic/Roc Nation Records
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A fresh addition to the long-catalogued genre, Willow‘s “naïve” reminds us that punk’s political origins are Black. Over layers of fine-tuned harmonies, melodramatic guitar chords and low-tempo percussion, Willow belts the vulnerabilities of her naivety. A ballad set in scenes from life’s cinematic dystopia, avoiding cops and running from rubber bullets, she showcases a vocal range that, while initially trained for R&B, is perfectly suited for a pop-punk redux. Along with the rest of Lately I Feel Everything, her fourth studio album out today, the Tyler Cole-produced track proves that Willow is a musician with a limitless sound.

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Yebba, ‘October Sky’

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Yebba, ‘October Sky’


Yebba Smith LLC/RCA Records
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It’s a hard time to be a champion singer in pop – the kind who can really nail a vocal run, hit a high note with golden confidence and interpret a lyric with a stage actor’s bravado. In 2021, murmuring ASMR gurus and gum-snapping rappers dominate. But Abigail Smith, who goes by inverted pseudonym Yebba, shows how to do it on this song that’s been haunting my ears since June. “October Sky” starts out in that quiet, inward space so familiar in these Eilish days, as Yebba invokes a lo-fi filtered childhood memory of a lost loved one. Slowly, word by word, she builds tension, until she breaks through with one of those runs – and suddenly the song catapults into space. Mark Ronson’s strikingly tasteful production allows Yebba to lead as her memory becomes a burden, a treasure and an open door; she flies through it in the end, in full-throated catharsis. What’s remarkable is that she never sacrifices the intimacy of those first tentative notes. A master class in conveying complex emotions.

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Soccer Mommy, ‘rom com 2004’

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Soccer Mommy, ‘rom com 2004’

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Last year, Soccer Mommy‘s Sophie Allison told All Things Considered that when she made her album Color Theory, she wanted it to sound like a time capsule, something “shiny and new … being degraded over time.” Her latest song, the one-off single “rom com 2004,” continues that aesthetic trajectory. It’s got the hallmarks of Soccer Mommy’s catchy pop leanings – melodramatic yearning (“what does it say about me / that I rip out my heart for you,” she sings), a chorus with big ’90s indie-rock energy – but the track also digs into her penchant for eerie production, like when it pauses to get briefly, delightfully glitchy right after the first chorus. Plus, for added effect, the song’s video asks what it might look like if Allison’s Nintendo Mii took a time-traveling acid trip.

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