Tracks of the month, June 2015: The ghosts of Ferguson haunt US music

By Martin Smith | 7 July 2015
Marcel's mixtape artwork

Marcel’s mixtape artwork

The protest song is back and its return can be dated precisely to 9 August 2014. On that day a police officer shot and murdered an 18 year old black man, Michael Brown. Since then, we have seen a number of artists produce songs of rage, lament and protest.

The new protest music does not come with a guitar with the words “this machine kills fascists” written on it, nor does it declare itself “Black and proud”. So what does a 21st century protest song sound like?

If you’re Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Ti, The Game or Lauren Hill it comes with a hip hop beat. If you’re Black Flag or Tom Morello it comes with a rock beat. If you’re Ezra Furman it has echoes of Bob Dylan and if you’re D’Angelo or Alicia Keys it takes you back to the golden era of soul and funk.

My first three selections this month have all been shaped by Ferguson and subsequent events. The protest song is back and it should be no surprise – there is so much to protest about.

Marcel Cartier – United States of Hypocrisy Mixtape 2015

Marcel Cartier’s mixtape United States of Hypocrisy kicks off with Malcolm X saying: “You and I have never seen democracy – all we’ve seen is hypocrisy.”

What follows is a lyrical assault on America’s rich and powerful. The music may be basic hip hop fare, similar to Immortal Technique or Dead Prez. But the rhymes are thoughtful and some of the most political you will hear. It is laced with snippets of speeches from Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and other activists.

Marcel grew up on US military bases in Europe. But it was hip hop that opened up his political world view. His poetry is a powerful critique of US imperialism and nationalism. On the track Borders For Us Marcel blasts: “They want no borders for the money, but more borders for us!”

The track Freedom of Bigotry is just a joy to listen to. Marcel’s lyrics openly challenge homophobia, transphobia, bigotry and sexism. They blast out of the water the notion that hip hop is a misogynistic and homophobic art form.

Marcel also addresses the question of socialism and the working class. This mixtape was released on 1 May to mark International Workers’ Day. Listening to an interview with him, it is clear that his socialism is influenced by Third World nationalism and he has a romanticised vision of North Korea. But don’t let that put you off: it is refreshing to hear a hip hop artists discussing blue collar workers and socialism.

United States Of Hypocrisy confirms Marcel Cartier’s status as one of the most radical rappers out there. You can listen to the album in full here:

Robert Glasper Covered (Blue Note 2015) CD/vinyl/download

The last two Robert Glasper albums Black Radio and Black Radio volume 2 were massive critical and commercial successes.

They transcended any notion of genre, drawing from jazz, hip hop, RnB and rock. They featured many of Glasper’s famous friends including Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild, Meshell Ndegeocello and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def).

Covered sees Glasper working once again with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid. This was the trio that created his first two Blue Note releases, Canvas (2005) and In My Element (2007).

Covered, features songs written by hip hop and RnB legends alongside jazz standards like Stella By Starlight and tunes by Radiohead and Joni Mitchell.

The sound is stripped back, lush with a hint of Bill Evans thrown into the mix. Gone has gone the noodling and fusion backdrop.

The track Got Over sees Harry Belafonte discussing black self-respect.

But the best is left for last: the haunting I’m dying of thirst. Written by Kendrick Lamar, Quincy Jones, Marilyn and Alan Bergman it is a powerful condemnation of murderous police violence. Over the top a beautiful piano refrain children namecheck African Americans who have died at the hands of the police.

Kendrick Lamar – The Blacker the Berry (TDE 2015) 12” single/download

To coincide with his amazing performance at the Wireless Festival in London, Kendrick released The Blacker the Berry from his album A Pimp to a Butterfly. The lyrics speak for themselves.

Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses
You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it
I’m African American; I’m African, I’m black as the moon
Heritage of a small village, pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You’re fuckin’ evil — I want you to recognise that I’m a proud monkey
You vandalise my perception but can’t take style from me

Suzanne Kraft Talk From Home (Melody as Truth 2015) vinyl/download

It’s time to bring down the musical and political tempo a notch or ten.

Diego Herrera or, as he is better known, Suzanne Kraft is a Los Angeles-based producer and DJ. He is part of LA psychedelic dance band Pharaohs and collaborates with Secret Circuit on Blasé. I may be wrong but I believe he uses the name Suzanne Kraft to help create a certain vibe around his music.

Talk from Home is quite simply a beautiful ambient album full of atmospheric and dreamy melodies with just a sweet tinge of disco.

Arthur Russell Another Thought (Orange Mountain Music) CD

My left-field recommendation this month is this Arthur Russell compilation album.

His music is an exploration of pop, dance and classical music. My brother discovered Arthur’s music through his avant-garde work and I discovered him through his disco/boogie 12”.

He recorded under a number of different names. I have included two videos to give the reader some idea of the breadth of his musical output.

Arthur died of Aids in 1992. He spent his life trying to stretch the parameters of popular music. Much of his musical work was never completed, he was always rewriting and restructuring his scores.

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