Posted in Headlines, Music, Politics, Racism, Writing

Playlist for the Apocalypse: 10 Highwomen

When Brandi Carlile first made her mark in the Indie-Folk/Adult Alternative world in 2007 with her Grey’s Anatomy featured debut single, “The Story” I would have never guessed that a decade later she would go on to form an all-women country supergroup. But that’s probably because I wasn’t paying really close attention to the music world at the time. In retrospect it all makes sense, “The Story” was produced by none other than T-Bone Burnett. Carlile, like Burnett, has made a career of producing music that brings the fringes of folk, alternative, and outlaw country to mainstream audiences.

So, when Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires formed the Highwomen as the female answer to the male country supergroup the Highwaymen and rounded out the roster with Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby it all seems to somehow make sense now. Their Dave Cobb produced album, The Highwomen is as pure as country music gets. Cobb has produced for a number of my favorite artists doing contemporary “neotraditional” country and folk that blends and bends those definitions further with elements of roots, rock, pop, and alternative music: Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and my personal favorite, Ian Noe.

The album breathes a strong, independent, fierce, sensual, feminine, and feminist (in the best way) breath of fresh air into the still male-dominated world of Country music, hell the world of music in general. The album’s songs are packed with lush acoustic guitar and piano, much of both instruments are handled by Carlile. There are punctuation marks of old-time violin played by Shires. The songs on the album provide anthemic and often brilliant portraits of the lives of women: lovers, mothers, single women, working women, straight women, gay women, and on the album’s (and the group’s theme song) a strong black woman.

The decision to remake the group’s theme song to the tune of the original Highwaymen theme song was bold. As Carlile described in Roling Stone, of the ladies giving the old country, outlaw, ghost anthem an update:

[Their characters] all died doing things that men do,” says Carlile. “Willie was a bandit. Johnny Cash drove a fucking starship, nobody knows why. We rewrote it with fates that befell women: a doctor convicted of witchcraft; an immigrant who died trying to get over the border but got the kids over safe and sound; a preacher; and a freedom rider who gets shot.

It is perhaps the decision to include the story of a black freedom rider on their theme song that was the group’s boldest and riskiest move. Maren Morris sits out on her lead vocal duties on the album’s lead track and the Supergroup’s theme song. In her usual place is Yola Carter (formerly of Phantom Limb and a powerhouse of a vocalist in her own right) singing a verse only a black woman can sing: the story of a freedom rider killed in the bus attacks carried out by white supremacists groups in the south, in this instance in Virginia in 1961. I mean theses kick-ass women made a theme song that doesn’t include one of their key members. This is a key “Character” to the group, to the degree that The Highwomen is a re-envisioning of The Highwaymen. It’s as if Carlile, Shires, Morris, and Hemby know that no circle of women singing feminist anthems is complete if it only includes white women.

And that’s why it makes it to today’s Apocalyptic Playlist track. These women aren’t making merely feminist country music. They’re at least attempting to make inclusive feminist country. It may not be consciously womanist, but it is at least intentional about the inclusion of black bodies when they sing their song of women outlaws who laid their lives down to change the world and now live on.

After all, the roots of Country Music, like all almost all forms of American music trace their roots to black music: the banjo, the gospel choir. Country, perhaps even more than Rock and Roll, has become a predominately white art, deeply indebted to black art. Not just Charley Pride and Darius Rucker, though they’ve made some fine contributions. But Country music is deeply indebted to traditional African American Music that goes all the way back to slave spirituals and field songs.

Bravo ladies! Folks we are never going to make it as a society though if the lives and bodies of all women and in particular black women and other women of color aren’t seen as more than symbols of powerful women from the past and still today, as tokens, tools, useful for their electability and the power of their potential voting block. That’s the way public discourse about potential VP running mates for Joe Biden seems to be taking place. And the way the public seems disinterested in the acts of aggression both presidential candidates have committed against women is just astounding. We need to be reminded still – and sadly more than ever – that the lives of women – all women – matter!

As always, please enjoy, subscribe, follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I always appreciate when you folks share these posts on social media. Thank you so much for those of you that have been doing so! Please remember to include the hashtag #PlaylistfortheApocalypse

And please, whether you’re in quarantine, an essential worker, or in a place that is back open if you’re enjoying the posts and the playlist, say hi, feel free to introduce yourself or interact. I am always up for community building. And as I’ve said I am in Michigan, with a stay at home order, now expanded until March 28. So if you have requests for content, questions, or comments it looks like I am going to be having some more time on my hands when this playlist ends next week. Until Monday, Namaste.

*It seems WordPress and Spotify are still not getting along. Apparently, I’m not the first or only one this has effected. Sorry, but for now, no embedded playlists.

Posted in Headlines, Hip Hop, Music, Racism

Playlist for the Apocalypse: 03 Nina


The first time I heard Rapsody was over her 9th Wonder assisted single, “Believe Me” from her 2012, debut album, The Idea of Beautiful. 9th Wonder is one of my favorite producers in Hip-Hop, so I was paying attention. Rapsody has since released several outstanding projects. Her 2019 album Eve was not just another album, it is a conceptual masterpiece. At its core, Eve is an album about black femininity. Each song takes its name from a woman with such stature or charisma, she can be evoked by first name alone: Aaliyah, Oprah, Maya, and Michelle make the list. In total, Rapsody’s Eve features 19 tracks, each named for a strong black woman, including today’s Apocalyptic Playlist track, Nina.

Ropsody is an artist of the highest caliber, a fierce MC, and a self-identified Womanist. I first discovered Womanism when I was in seminary through the writings of Stacey Floyd-Thomas. While my initial exposure to Womanist theory and philosophy was limited to a subset of Christian Womanists, I also discovered Alice Walker, was exposed to a deeper reading of Maya Angelou and slowly began to see how “progressive” causes like feminism often get framed in explicitly and sometimes exclusively white terms. This is where I started to understand that the notion of “colorblindness” however well-intentioned, fell short of addressing racism at best and at its worst white-washed and erased the experiences of non-white people.

Ropsody’s “Nina” is based around a sample of Simone’s rendition of the Billie Holiday song, Strange Fruit. The song painfully and poetically comments on lynchings by likening it to strange fruit on the trees:

Southern trees bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Rapsody has so, so many dope lines in this song. Her name should be on the table every time people talk about the “greatest rappers alive.” After the initial sample she is off and running: “Emit light, rap, or Emmett Till I drew a line without showing my body, that’s a skill.” The task is daunting: “emit light” in a racist society, in a music industry where the bodies of women are sometimes talked about more than what they bring to the table artistically. Rapsody is up for that task. And damn if she doesn’t do it with style and the skill of a top tier MC. The whole anime/Angela/apologies/Namaste/marmalade/promenade rhyme scheme is the kind of near-rhyme technique I aspire to in a lot of my own spoken word. When assonance is done right, especially in Hip-Hop it just sounds dope.

But what she’s actually saying in those few densely packed lines is amazing: Rapsody is the real thing. A lot of rappers, a lot of people in general are fake, they’re “anime.” In fact She’s as fine as Anna Mae (Tina Turner) and won’t crack, calling to mind Angela Bassett’s portrayal of Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. She knows her worth: “When you greet me it’s, Namaste.” And she “spreads love” in all inclusive Womanist fashion: “the Brooklyn way or like marmalade, no matter if you street street or more like the promenade.”

We live in a world where career politicians talk about the importance of the black community and the necessity of having a strong coalition of black supporters every election cycle and then go back to business as normal: appeasing big banks, Wall Street and super pac donors, and lobbyists. I can’t help but wonder how people of color and women of all colors must feel when campaign strategists debate the what combination of gender and ethnicity could potentially win an election. I want to tread very carefully here, as I am aware of the irony (and potentially nefarious effects) when white people try to explain black art or men try to speak on behalf of women. I would rather listen than speak. In this case, allow Rapsody to speak – not for me – but to me about who she is:

I’m from the back woods where Nina would
Sing about the life we should lead
A new dawn, another deed, I try to do some good
I felt more damned than Mississippi was
They deny Nina in Philadelphia
And still we persevere like all the 400 years of our own blood, Africa
Old panthers looking back like who gonna come up after us?
Outside the movies, I make sure before it move you
It moved me, now bow down to a Queen

Indeed, Rapsody is a queen! Look around! We are surrounded by royalty. Many don’t know their own worth. Other’s have grossly exaggerated sense of their self-worth and lord it over others.  Rapsody shows me how to both love and critique myself by painting a picture of a black woman loving herself in the midst of opposition.  If you get a chance to watch the interview above in full, pay close attention to how her “Hip-Hop Feminism” (interviewer, Dr. Yaba Blay’s term) or better her Womanism (Rapsody’s term) inherently includes men. Her thoughts on how femininity is often presented in Hip-Hop are enlightening and her brief comments on Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Nelly might not be what you expect. Enjoy the song. I hope you’re enjoying the playlist. Until tomorrow, Namaste.