McSweeney's mix CD for the Obama era

For black artists, our new president has meant the start of a different age. This music aims to capture it

Published July 31, 2010 12:19AM (EDT)

My uncle Steve hates Barack Obama. There, I’ve said it: I’ve relayed in public the secret that we hush at family gatherings, the reason our family cannot openly celebrate and discuss the Obamas at Christmastime the way other black families do. Let me be explicit about what I am saying. When I use the word "hate," I mean that my uncle — an African American man in his 50s who grew up in the segregated South, in Arkansas, a hundred miles from the National Guard’s 1957 standoff with nine black students outside an all-white school — this man, who ate at segregated diners, played in all-black athletic leagues, and went to all-black schools — despises the first black president of the United States.

The reasons are varied: Sometimes he seems simply jealous, envious that a brother has come around in his lifetime who is — how can I put it? — superbadder than he will ever be. But my uncle, who works in Springfield, Ill., believes that Obama is just another politician with questionable ethics. He claims if the walls could talk about the real goings-on behind closed doors, Barack Obama would be in jail, and not in the White House.

I must admit that I see most of the mysterious alliances or inconsistencies that pundits, scholars and my uncle cite as Obama’s failures as signs that Obama decided to go to Washington to get things done. I have no delusions about American politics. I need Obama to be a complex freedom fighter, not a saint.

That said, black folks everywhere are still figuring out what to make of this new era. In the midst of all this, I set out to compile a musical State of the Union address for the 2010 Believer music issue that embodies the spirit of these times we’re living in. We’re huddled around the TV, watching "The Boondocks" and wondering what to make of a song (from Season 3) called "Dick Riding Obama." Some of us certainly laugh, and afterward we talk. Some of us really do feel that gross sections of the black community, and black artists in particular, are ill-informed and exploiting Obama’s platform — they are, in essence, dick-riding Obama — while others in the community are pissed-off, wondering what white folks think, and imagine they're happily whistling that little ditty. Perhaps, most important, some of us find it totally irresponsible for a black artist to make art that insinuates anything bad, dark or untoward about Obama and his legacy, while others feel it’s the black artist’s role to share his true feelings, to tell the truth to the world — right now! — precisely as he sees it, politics and niceties be damned.

What this new era means to the black artist is a particularly complex and powerful question. But suffice it to say that in the black fine arts there’s a lot of joy and optimism, good ol’ sex and love, as well as pain and anger, along with bickering and confusion. Post-racial joy versus black nationalist aggression? Check! "Hip-hop is dead!" diatribes? Claims that "hip-hop is alive and well and in the White House"? Check and check! Post-black scholarship? The dismal reality of the "State of the Dream" report? Check and check again! Which all takes us back to one of the age-old debates of any artistic community: art for art’s sake verus Art as Propaganda. Check!

The good news is that blacks are upbeat about racial progress in America for the first time in 25 years, even though Obama’s presidency hasn’t made it easier for black people to catch a cab in New York, and it has not yet in any demonstrable fashion changed our salaries, our employment opportunities, or the ability of trigger-happy police officers to end our lives for such unjust reasons as reaching for our wallets. Nevertheless, according to a recent Pew survey, in the past two years, 54 percent of blacks have suddenly decided that race relations have improved for the better. Black optimism about race relations? We are certainly living in magical times.

And that’s what I’ve set out to capture on this CD. The title alludes to a revelatory moment in my life when, as a 17-year-old, I first encountered "The People Who Could Fly," by Virginia Hamilton, a retelling of an old African folktale, in which several African slaves fly up from the cotton fields and back to Africa. That story served as the foundation for Toni Morrison’s "Song of Solomon" — and to this day that tale and Morrison’s novel have inspired me to believe that, despite adversity, or perhaps because of it, black people — Africans everywhere — have the magic and the superpowers they need not only to survive, not only to escape, but also to succeed and create more goodness in the world around them.

And that is the charge I believe all black artists need to be taking up right now. We need to be complex freedom fighters. There is serious work to be done, real discussion to be had in terms of art, culture, entertainment, technology and politics in America.

We need some soul scientists. Here at Wondaland we call ourselves thrivals, and we write manifestos — rebel yells and drum circles — disguised as dance songs.

Perhaps, more than anything, Obama’s historic success has finally given progressive artists the right to believe that imagination can inspire nations, and that even if the radio doesn’t broadcast it, and the television doesn’t televise it, the revolution is real — for the masses are arming themselves with headphones: dancing and paying attention.

—Chuck Lightning


Deep Cotton consists of Nate "Rocket" Wonder and myself — the creative and production duo behind the celebrated "hardest-working android in show business," Janelle Monáe. At Wondaland Studios, our home base in Atlanta, we’re currently working on a musical suite called "Runaway Radio." We’re also finishing our first "emotion picture," "I Have a Scream." "Self!" was recorded in the Musiquarium at the Palace of the Dogs, and its existential lyrics about "medicine," "maggots," and "memories for sale" typify recordings of this period.


Kevin Barnes sent me the demo of "Hydra Fancies" about a year ago, and it turned my world upside down. It’s a quiet storm of "Camille"-era Prince mixed with the tender, pastoral quality of the Beatles circa "Revolver." Then Barnes went out to L.A., hooked up with Jon Brion, and the song was reborn as a funk-soul masterpiece. Wherever you are in the world, please stop what you’re doing, turn in the direction of Los Angeles, and bow in gratitude to Jon Brion for the beautiful symphonic roar of stacked Yamaha CS-80 synths at the end of this track.


The days at Wondaland start when Roman GianArthur sits down at the grand piano and plays his morning selection. Sometimes it’s Debussy, sometimes it’s Stevie Wonder. Other mornings, he plays songs like this one. Georgie Fruit (aka Kevin Barnes) might join him. How can one piano take so much funk?


When Cody ChesnuTT arrived at Wondaland last fall, he got out of the car wearing a cape, a fishing hat and some soccer flip-flops, carrying a guitar. These days he’s working on transcendental soul songs: imagine the sort of compositions Marvin Gaye would write if he were living in the Florida foothills, tending to his wife and family, sitting next to a pond with his guitar, wondering what to make of what’s left of the world. This will surely be the vibe on Cody’s forthcoming album, "Landing on 100."


When Saul first came to Wondaland, in 2003, he had a great batch of songs that he had produced himself — the epic, brutal, truth-telling dancepunk songs that would become the masterpiece of an LP called, simply, "Saul Williams." We were amazed. This demo is a holdover from that era — just an acoustic guitar and Saul, once again demanding that we think. Like Uncle Jam said: "It ain’t illegal yet."


Strange things happen when you’re on the road. We were in Pennsylvania, getting ready to play a Janelle Monáe show at a private college. On the way to the gymnasium, someone in the van started playing "Songs in the Key of Life." Instantly inspired, Nate Wonder pulled out his iPhone and started humming some new arrangements — and that’s how it happened: Under Stevie’s watchful eye, "Cold War" was reborn as a slow, simmering, funky soul anthem.


With the World Cup in South Africa this year, it seems altogether fitting that we would take this opportunity to celebrate one of South Africa’s biggest musical success stories: Blk Jks. Hailing from Johannesburg, Blk Jks represents a new Africa — one that includes genres such as prog-rock, ska, punk and psychedelia among its many influences. (This particular song comes from their new EP, called "¡Zol!.")


Most of the innovative rappers I know have put down their microphones and rhyme books and picked up guitars and an affection for the Beach Boys’ melodies — and Spree Wilson is no exception. The genius of this song is the way it juxtaposes its heartfelt lyrics, folksy melody and acoustic guitars against the boom of an 808 — a songwriting innovation first perfected by Atlanta production houses such as Organized Noize and Earthtone III.


Scar is an underground Atlanta superstar: the kind of songwriter who can write a polished, immortal song in the course of a single day. As a vocalist, too, he can hold his own against the major artists he sells his songs to — a list that includes Usher, Jamie Foxx and John Legend. Scar’s forthcoming album is full of songs that sound like Phil Collins loitering in a seedy, outer-space strip club, telling the scantily clad girl across from him all about his broken heart.


"Velvet Rope Blue" is named in the tradition of old blues songs that contained either the word "blue" or "blues" in the song title, e.g., "Dead Man Blues," "Black and Blue," "Mood Indigo." I wrote it as a summation of my Hollywood experience — hence the "velvet rope." It’s not exactly a sad or happy song; rather, it’s a sorting-through of the tension that exists between the physical and the spiritual.

Among my primary influences are Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Lucian Freud, Vincent van Gogh, Carl Jung, Paul Gauguin, Mahatma Gandhi, André 3000, Francis Bacon, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Nikola Tesla, Stevie Wonder, Francisco Goya, Michael Jackson, Gustav Klimt, Jodeci, Joseph Campbell, Pablo Picasso, Bootsy Collins, and Marcel Duchamp.

—Rob Roy


Being from the ATL, I’m a big lover of alien love-anthems — songs like Goodie Mob’s "Beautiful Skin" and Outkast’s "Stanklove." This underground Atlanta hit continues that powerful tradition. It will make you want to jump into a convertible, pick up the finest available specimen, and head to the most deserted spot you can find. Guaranteed.


When they perform, Fear & Fancy wear masks or facepaint and sing songs about ancient queens, pointless dreams and solar-paneled Cadillacs. Based in the Bay Area, the group consists of the son of a Native American chief, the son of a minister, and the son of a revolutionary. The group’s main strength is that they’ve realized that great party music can also stimulate thought (see Fela Kuti, Funkadelic, et al.).


"Turn Off the TV" suggests that every person is capable of doing the things they see folks doing on television — provided they’re actually able to turn the machine off. The music was developed and recorded with various improvised audio devices (note George 2.0’s use of the vocal "fauxguitar" in the place of an actual guitar soloist) and produced via remote control across several regions of the country as an answer to those who would defend their lack of productivity by bemoaning their lack of resources.

14. "BORN FREE," M.I.A.

"Born Free" is less worldly than many another M.I.A. offering, or at least less third-worldly: Built around a Suicide sample, it’s the kind of straight-up breakneck hardcore that doesn’t inspire exoticism in white people so much as easy familiarity. But this feeling has a threat level pushed into the red: soundscape buffeted by echo and menacing enunciations, hostility turned toward the listener ("I throw this shit in your face when I see you").

This unfamiliar familiarity dovetails with the murderous irony of the Romain Gavras video, which dramatizes the arbitrary racism of the supposedly antiterrorist regime via a police pogrom against "gingers," i.e., very redheaded and very white people. The video is itself familiar to anyone who has seen Peter Watkins’s "Punishment Park."

It is a way of acknowledging her growing hipster audience, and trying as best she can to confront them, I mean us, with the recollection that however badass we feel, we are indeed born free compared to most of the world — that any familiarity we have is a kind of privilege. It is a mean song, in short. Or it wants to be. If it fails, if it seems another kind of cynical stance-taking within the star-maker machinery, that is a sign of the machinery’s power to grind all our imagined resistance into the fine powder of the biz. And that is perhaps the most punishing fact of all.

—Joshua Clover


Joi Gilliam is the godmother of all Atlanta’s ATLiens. She’s our Isis, our Athena, our spaced-out Sphinx. She’s sung on every Outkast album, and on the missed-calls list on her cell phone you’d probably find names like Betty Davis, Sun Ra, and Eddie Hazel. We originally set out to include on this compilation a song from "The Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome," her classic underground album, but then we found out she has a new band, a new sound, and some great new songs. This is one of them.


This tune was originally a slow-burning soul number, but then Shane said to speed it up, so we did. Shout out to our current drummer, Thomas — the gentleman who drums on "Cold Boy" plays for Ruben Studdard from time to time. This is from our EP "Am I Still Illmatic?" We’ve got a new EP coming out soon called "Hit It!" Watch out for it on the streets…



When I met Kellindo Parker, I discovered that he’s an incredible guitarist. Then I found out that his uncle is Maceo Parker (best known as James Brown’s saxophonist). It took me longer to learn that Kellindo also had a side project called Mother Novella, named after his maternal grandmother. His father was Kellis Parker Sr., the black scholar, lawyer, musician and freedom fighter, and the first black law professor at Columbia University. When his father passed away, in 2000, Kellindo composed this electric eulogy. Unlike the demo version, which dripped with anguish and loss, this finished studio version is almost celebratory — proof that over the years, Kellindo has moved to a different spiritual and emotional space.


The precise details of this recording are unknown, but it’s a cover of the 1976 hit by Alice Cooper and appears to be a rehearsal for a studio version that Simone cut in Montreux, Switzerland, in the spring of 1977. Simone’s longtime guitar player, Al Schackman, recorded the final version for an album that was to be produced by George Barrie, the onetime chairman of Fabergé fragrance company and creator of Brut cologne. Neither the song nor the record ever appeared, but Schackman believes this is a rough cut of Simone developing her rendition.

—Joe Hagan

By Chuck Lightning

MORE FROM Chuck Lightning

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Mcsweeney's