I’m not an outwardly emotional man. I feel things — I think my superpower is my ability to embody the art I’m taking in and reflect its light to the world — but it’s rare that I’m so moved by something that I start crying. I’m not saying that’s a good thing; apathy isn’t a badge of honor, yet I can only count a handful of times I’ve wept as an adult.
It almost happened again this past weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the Mill & Mine as part of Big Ears Festival, Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble performed a set so powerful that I couldn’t help but think of my grandparents and the old Baptist church in which I grew up. It brought me back to the rickety wooden pews, the barely-there air conditioning, the elder church ladies with their ornate hats. The music was rapturous, just like the hymnals that soundtracked my childhood. Band members celebrated one another: As clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid blared celestial notes, nearby singers urged her on. When Ben LaMar Gay blew the cornet, the band shouted and stomped alongside him. It was the familial aspect of it; the love was strong and poured through the music. It’s the same kind of community they exhibited in their studio work, 2019’s Where Future Unfolds and last year’s NOW.
I walked into the venue somewhat conflicted about where I belonged creatively. On one end, I came up in traditional newsrooms where journalists are supposed to distance themselves from the subject matter. As the thinking went, writers presented the objective truth, sticking to the facts and coming down the middle as best as possible. That’s why the writer’s byline is so small; the narrative beneath it is all people care about.
I had no problem with this in the old days. I mean, I was covering politics, business, and education, so it was easy to disconnect and stick to the facts (though in education, school leaders use the achievement gap to get elected, but rarely do anything to solve an issue that overtly affects Black and Brown children … so maybe I couldn't disconnect from that .... but I digress).
It’s tough to disconnect from music when you grew up in love with it. It’s even tougher when you’re blessed enough to only cover what you want, which means detaching from the news cycle, the clickbait headlines, who-gives-a-fuck streaming numbers, and stupid social media behavior that has nothing to do with the art. Thankfully, I can write about the music itself: Sure we can talk about upbringing and the real-world circumstances that influence the work, but I get to chat with the human behind the moniker.
A strange thing has happened as a result: People like talking to me. I’ve been told that I make them feel comfortable, which I guess is cool, though I don’t know if my old editors would like it. They were the Watergate Generation; to them, anyone in a suit-n-tie was the enemy. But I’m covering music, and I’d have to be a real piece of trash to exude aggression on this type of beat.
I’ve also noticed that I’m becoming something else, and it’s been happening since this project came out — maybe even a little before. Suddenly, the same musicians I cover, whose records adorn the vinyl display in my apartment, started embracing me as part of the same creative tribe. Now it isn’t so tough to get [redacted] on the phone, or to tap in with your favorite rapper just to make sure they’re doing well. And it’s all good because I don’t want anything from them. It’s just two people saying peace to each other without handlers swooping in to protect them. Maybe that’s a superpower, too? The ability to be a writer and critic but also a human who cares about other humans? I dunno.
I flew all these feelings to Knoxville to conduct an interview series I curated for Big Ears. Even that was a trip, to reach out to Ambrose Akinmusire; Moses Sumney; Taja Cheek (who records under the name L’Rain); Dawn Richard; Sudan Archives; Saul Williams; Locks; Angel; and Gay, and have them all respond with enthusiastic approvals. I love all their music, and here I'd be on stage with them.
I was a bit anxious and all the way exhausted; I’d been going nonstop since January, and the idea of speaking with my faves scared me a little. Yet everyone made me feel accepted, seen, and understood. All while I’m thanking them for their time, they’re thanking me for covering their music. And it wasn’t just the interview subjects: During some rare free time, I was walking up the street and noticed Nubya Garcia walking toward me. She smiled and opened her arms, coming in for a hug. I almost looked behind me to see if this greeting was meant for someone else! Later that day, I’m texting with the good brother Chief Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah; we wound up hanging out backstage just because. It wasn’t for a story or anything; we were just talking about music and life and creativity. It was wonderful. The love was overwhelming at Big Ears, and I didn’t know until the Black Monument Ensemble gig just how physically and mentally weary I had been.
Locks opened the set with a new poem he’d written earlier that week after visiting several historic Black sites in Knoxville. Armed with a new perspective, he dissected the juxtaposition of distance and proximity. When asked this week, Locks was kind enough to share the piece with me, so I’m pasting it in full to maintain its integrity:
His words struck me in ways I didn’t expect. I’ve always been an isolated creator — just give me a laptop and some music and I’m good — but his nudging to lessen distance made me realize how much I needed this like-minded tribe. I’d been on my own artistically for too long, too entranced by the future, too focused on fixing a new plate. As he shouted these directives atop Dana Hall’s cascading drum fills, which led to a sauntering groove and the band’s repeated chants of “Blaaaaaack monumeeeeeeeent,” my throat tightened and my eyes filled with water. Here was my favorite group embracing the now. I submitted to the moment. I decided to let go.
This feeling shouldn’t surprise those who’ve followed the Ensemble to this point. Equally current and nostalgic, it pulls spiritual jazz, gospel, archival footage, electro-funk and Civil Rights-era righteousness into a multifaceted stream with several touchpoints and entries. You into early ‘80s breakdancing? Play “The People vs. The Rest of Us.” You need something oceanic with a relaxed island ethos and a resonant message? Go to “Stay Beautiful.” The Ensemble explores the nuance of Black existence while eluding the trauma-based narrative that sells books and greenlights television pilots. The issues are there, but the Ensemble spins it forward, recognizing the peril while accentuating the silver lining.
The music is a warm embrace, a soft, life-affirming whisper. It speaks to the rage, the angst, and the sorrow without addressing the plight directly. It’s rarefied air in that way, similar to how ‘70s Stevie Wonder assuages all pain and Alice Coltrane gives free trips to outer space. The Ensemble speaks to Blackness in a way that I can’t quite reconcile. But I know I can’t live without it. I learned as much last week.
My time at Big Ears taught me who my tribe really is, and it isn’t some stuffy disconnected journalist who can’t enjoy the world. It’s fine to have opinions. It’s also fine to embrace camaraderie, to be at one with feelings, whatever they may be.
I bumped into Locks after the show and told him how moved I was by the performance, and how I stopped just short of sobbing.
“I didn’t cry,” I told him jokingly. “Because I was wearing a leather jacket and a New York Yankee cap.”
That I couldn't seriously discuss my movement to tears means I'm still holding onto prehistoric elements of male vulnerability. I've got a ways to go, but I'm willing to take the trip.