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On Black Music: A Dialogue with Saul Williams, David Murray, Rashaan Carter and Kokayi

What makes Black Music the most culturally appropriated music on Earth? Saxophonist David Murray, bassist Rashaan Carter and the rappers Kokayi and Saul Williams have some ideas.

On this episode of The Checkout, these artists form a distinguished panel, speaking from the 50th Jazz Middelheim Festival in Antwerp, Belgium.

Credit Bruno Bollaert
Saul Williams speaking at Jazz Middelheim

Williams, who recently released his brilliant album Encrypted and Vulnerable, kicks off the conversation by asking us to reimagine the hell of enslaved Africans in the Middle Passage. “The argument has been made that it’s those hulls of the ship, it’s like a sweat lodge ceremony, but in a spaceship,” he says. “It’s the idea of ritualistic transformation, where, if you are in that position: What do you dream? What do you think? What do you say? How do you moan? Do you cry? Do you sing? It’s been argued that every art form that has come out of the African American experience was born there.”

The roundtable dismisses as feeble the attempts of filmmakers like Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino to depict the horrors of the African American experience. Kokayi goes on: “Maybe with Django [Unchained], we got a little bit of revenge, or whatever, but if America was truly honest about how slavery happened, they would never be able to show that movie. It would get an X rating, not just because of rape and murder, but violence – everything. So you can’t take the black experience and put it into a movie without fixing it so that it could be palatable, because if people were actually faced with the horror of themselves, then they really would not go to that movie. That would be the worst selling movie of all time.” It should be noted that Kokayi releases his new album Hubri$ on Bandcamp this Monday.

Bassist Rashaan Carter, who has toured with David Murray for several years, brings up the recent advances in genetic memory. “Within my genes, within my bones, within my blood, and skin and all of this, I’m carrying around the Middle Passage, Reconstruction, Civil War, so much,” he says. “So there’s a lot to deal with. I was born in 1986. I missed a lot of history of standing and being there. But my bones carry this history.”

On a lighter note, Murray reminisces about New York’s “loft jazz” scene, painting a vivid picture of writers Stanley Crouch, Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray, Ted Jones, James Baldwin, and Quincy Troupe – all at each other’s throats, with mostly respectful dissent. This model of great black ideas in unison with disagreement portrays a vision of a healthy black America, full of differing truths and varying opinions, something still vastly lacking in our white-dominated creative industries.

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For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.