I am the sound of America
The dissonance they created
I am a Black American
Colored by America's ineptitude
I am an African American
Struggling with my allegiance to the motherland
I am an evolving light,
Living under the shade of our ancestors
I am your American negro
These words spoken and written by the multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Adrian Younge are a part of the introduction to the title track from his new record "The American Negro." Recorded over a three-month stretch from March to June 2020, the album offers up the soulful spirit of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield while having the poignant lyricism of Black Arts poets like Gil Scott Heron, the Last Poets and Watts Prophets, and mashing up the psychedelic jazz of David Axelrod with a dash of Sam Cooke.
The album includes 14 songs and 12 spoken word interludes between songs meditating on what it means to be African American in the 21st century. Younge aims for the record "to act as a lever of change during a time of mass disillusionment: an album for the people that details the evolution of racism in America." To drive the point home even further, Younge includes an image of himself being lynched on the cover. It is clearly not an album for the faint of heart.
The truthful reckoning this record offers is especially relevant now as the 50th anniversary of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and the 30th anniversary of the Rodney King beating surrounds its release. "The American Negro" is Younge's manifesto. As such, it is accompanied by a podcast series, "Invisible Blackness with Adrian Younge," and a 21-minute film "T.A.N." that further adds to his message.
In many ways, the album is one long song sequenced as a mixtape with highs and lows. Younge wrote all the songs, played every instrument in the rhythm section and also orchestrated the 30-piece orchestra that appears on several songs. He recorded it all in his Highland Park analog studio. You'd be hard pressed to find a musician that's recorded more music over the last decade than Younge. He's produced for Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, the Wu-Tang Clan and also composed for television shows like Marvel's "Luke Cage" and films like "Black Dynamite."
The Musician is the Document
Younge opens up the record in spoken word: "The musician is the document: an aural transcription of experience and perception through the vantage point of self. And if music is the message. For the negro, the music is the Black critique. It's our tool to analyze the ignorance..."
The verisimilitude of his message may be too much for those afraid of self-inquiry or those who dare not look deep into the history of race relations in America over the last five centuries, but for those who are willing, it is best to also apply poet Douglas Kearney's advice here on fellow wordsmith Amaud Jamaul Johnson's work: "Sip this fire slowly."
Throughout the record, Younge drops facts between tracks like "12 of the first 18 presidents were enslavers." Younge's announcements between songs also make him like a radio DJ from days gone by.
You are tuned into the BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS! / A broadcast amplified by the struggle / A frequency syncopated in sound.Adrian Younge, "Revolutionize"
Younge rallies listeners with the same spirit as on-air radio personalities like Nathaniel "the Magnificent" Montague, a Los Angeles radio legend in the 1960s famed for his charismatic banter and love of soul music. Montague played a role in rallying the populace around music and politics especially during the Watts Uprising of 1965.
Montague kept the city informed. He coined the phrase "Burn, baby! Burn!" before the unrest as a rallying cry to get listeners fired up about the music he was playing, but the phrase ended up being co-opted during the riots. When Montague was criticized for the phrase, he changed it to: "Learn, baby! Learn!"
Younge's voice through the record harkens back to DJs like Montague. His voice ties it all together and consolidates the news for the people, bringing what he calls, "the Black Broadcast." He's the narrator, the master of ceremonies:
You are tuned into the BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS!
Don't adjust your antenna
This is channel me
Younge's broadcast meditates on double consciousness, image versus identity, imperialism, eugenics, manifest destiny, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and race as a social construct. There's a lot to unpack but Younge manages to contextualize it all through the narrative arc. Younge told me in our Zoom conversation, "I wanted to respect the intelligence of the listener."
So much science is dropped that those who like doing homework will have a field day looking up the terms and the names behind the titles of the songs. Songs like "James Mincey Jr.," "Margaret Garner," and "George Stinney Jr." Younge's message, however, is accessible for those hungry for truth, especially in the post-George Floyd era of American society. Within the album lies the musical CliffNotes to critical race theory books and writers like W.E.B. Dubois, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Howard Zinn, Gerald Horne, Roxane Gay and Mikki Kendall.
In the spoken word interlude "Race is a Fallacy," for example, Younge states: "Race is a social construct with no biological truth; a fallacy pioneered by emigrating Europeans, at the dawn of America. Essentially, the colonists pioneered racism to stratify a new class structure, so that people of color could be exploited under the doctrine of manifest destiny."
Through most of the spoken word sections, a call and response dynamic reminiscent of the choruses in the Last Poets and Watts Prophets can be heard between Younge and a chorus of voices, voiced by Loren Oden, Sam Harmonix, Chester Gregory and Jazmin Hicks.
One of the choruses in the middle of the record reminds us: "The voice of history speaks louder than silence." On another interlude the chorus echoes: "The paradox of the positive: we've been marchin' for years, but haven't moved an inch!"
In the fifth track, "Double Consciousness," the chorus states: "Double consciousness: the psychological challenge we face as we look at ourselves through the eyes of a racist society." Double consciousness, is a concept first described by W.E.B. Dubois in his seminal 1903 book, "The Souls of Black Folk" and also later explicated further by Frantz Fanon. It is a concept still relevant and widely discussed in conversations around race.
The Stained Glass of History
Younge answers the chorus's definition of double consciousness with an example in his own life: "Image versus identity is the conundrum, further perplexed by the fact that we can't even agree on our name. As a Black father, I fight with my 5-year-old daughter, as she says we are Brown, and they are pink. In her defense, she views the world with a virgin optic, as I view the world through the stained glass of history that questions whether I am even human."
This disclosure is one of the most personal sections of the record. He is more than just a student of history, he is teacher and, as he says at both the beginning and end of the record, Younge grapples with the duplicity between the virgin optic and stained glass of history. And ultimately, he is kindly imploring us to embrace humanity and be the best versions of ourselves, even as his album tackles the worst that humanity has wrought.
Singer Loren Oden sings on 12 of the 14 songs and he's been recording and performing with Younge for over a decade. Oden's smooth voice meshes seamlessly with Younge's instrumentation. Together they wrote one of the record's most powerful tracks, "James Mincey Jr."
"It was hard writing the song 'James Mincey Jr.,'" Oden shared, "because it's a song about my uncle who was killed by the police in 1982. It was difficult to write but it allowed me to be able to have conversations with family members that have been great."
The song, haunting and beautiful, walks through the tragedy of Mincey's demise. Oden's uncle was killed by the infamous chokehold that the LAPD used through the 1970s and 80s — the kind that seems so familiar now in the wake of Eric Garner's and George Floyd's deaths. In the book, "Police: A Field Guide" written by David Correia and Tyler Wall the authors wrote: "At least since the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Los Angeles and New York police departments used and justified chokehold techniques, while at the same time banning and sanctioning some versions of the technique. In a five-year period in the 1980s, LAPD officers killed sixteen people with a chokehold, and fourteen of these deaths were of Black people."
Incredulously, Correia and Wall add that "The LAPD chief at the time, Daryl Gates, even went so far as to say that 'some Blacks' were more susceptible to death by chokehold due to the biological makeup of their arteries compared to 'normal people.'"
In the song, Oden sings, "Why should my skin / Bring so much pain // Can you please, tell mama / Junior's gone on home." Oden's singing is another one of the central threads through the record. The chemistry and history he shares with Younge allowed him to go to places he had never gone before.
"I know how Adrian thinks," Oden says," and he knows how I think. I'm always pushed to the next level." Oden's also really grateful "to be a part of a piece of art that's going to exist forever as a record of our lives here as Black people in America. I'm excited at the thought that when I'm long gone from this place, some young Black kid might come across this album and be enlightened just how I was when I came across Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' album."
"Margaret Garner" is another song with deep historical implications. Garner and her husband were enslaved but had escaped bondage in the pre-Civil War America. When their captors were closing in on them, she killed her young daughter rather than have her subjected to being a slave. Garner's life story was Toni Morrison's inspiration for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Beloved."
In Younge's "Margaret Garner" song sung by Loren Oden, Chester Gregory and Sam Harmonix, the lyrics declare, "My Black baby / Will you forgive me / Let me set you free / Let us both be free." The melody of the song uses the acoustic piano and vibraphone to create a warm sound. Those that do not know the story of the song could mistake it for an upbeat song, but its tone voices the pathos and deep love Margaret Garner had for her daughter's liberation.
Mincey and Garner's names aren't the only ones forever remembered in song, so is "George Stinney Jr. "I dedicated this song to the youngest person, in modern America, to be sentenced to death and executed... 14-years-old," Younge said. "Essentially, he was convicted for the crime of being Black." In 1944 South Carolina, the entire proceeding that sentenced Stinney to death including the jury selection only took one day. The officers forced him into confessing by starving him." He was exonerated in 2014," Younge says, "but this doesn't rectify the fact that he was wrongfully convicted and killed."
The melancholy song is one of the last on the record. The piano keys and orchestra play for almost three minutes before the vocals begin.
The Antidote is Understanding
As heavy as much of the record is, if you listen closely, Younge is not a fatalist or someone that has given up. He's offering solutions and sharing methods for liberation through the entire album. The song "Light on the Horizon," sung by Sam Dew, is reminiscent of Sam Cooke and voices hope.
Didn't come this far just to turn back / Didn't fight this hard just to lay back / On the ropes / I know it cause // But I can see the / Light on the horizon.Adrian Younge, "Light on the Horizon"
In "Sullen Countenance," the final track on the record he says: "Raise your children to love like children; embrace humanity, regardless of hue. Be the best version of yourself, because there is nobody that's better at being you, than you. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable, in the movement, as the moment is fleeting. Know that fear causes trauma to the brain, resulting in the paralysis of the mind, body and soul. The antidote is understanding."
As much as his music combines elements of different genres, more than anything Younge considers it to be freedom music.
DJ Rhettmatic from the Visionaries and DJ supergroup, the World Famous Beat Junkies told me, "Adrian Younge is a Renaissance man with musical talent that harkens back to the time of 70s and '80s soul music, yet his musical sensibilities can be appreciated by any modern hip-hop producer. Adrian is able to push the boundaries and still be able to keep intact the foundations of all the musical heroes before him."
Younge is a deeply progressive musician and not a fan of the word "retro." This ability to push boundaries is part of why Younge's record label is called, "Jazz is Dead." Younge co-founded the label with the Los Angeles native concert promoter and organizer Andrew Lojero, who he's been working with Younge for over a decade. They came up with the name in 2017 for a series of concerts they threw and started the label at the beginning of 2020.
Lojero found himself contemplating the word "jazz." At the time, people had been celebrating the rise of L.A.'s "spiritual jazz" scene, which Younge and others have been loosely grouped in. Lojero knew that the grandfather of the scene Horace Tapscott, who passed back in 1999, never liked the term "jazz." Tapscott thought a better name was "African American classical music."
One day, Lojero thought about an upcoming show he was promoting. "All I could see was an empty room and a dead box office for the jazz concert I had committed myself to," he says. "I blurted the name out in a deep fit of frustration. 'Jazz is Dead.' Once I said it aloud, something clicked. I said it again and again and again. Then I called at least a dozen of the people who always share their truths with me. They were divided, damn near 50/50. It led me to the understanding that the statement is a polarizing one and one that leaves people with a strong feeling. Angry or happy, they felt something. It wasn't indifferent."
Lojero continues. "It led me to the understanding that young people need some danger and some rebellion and some anti in their lives. Jazz had become something for their grandparents. It was hard to see it as their own because no one had contextualized it for them. Jazz is freedom music. The youth wants freedom more than anything else. And that's what 'Jazz is Dead' was here to share with them. Freedom music."
Younge's new record is freedom music. While there are elements of jazz in the music he plays, there is also funk, soul, spoken word and the immediacy of hip-hop, which reminds me of the song “Freedom Day,” by Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln from the 1960 record "We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite." Roach's record contained only five songs, but it was a pioneering avant-garde jazz record that included a vocal-instrumental suite based on the civil rights movement. Roach captured the zeitgeist of his moment with the same veracity as Younge is now capturing in 2021.
The Midnight Hour
The "Jazz is Dead" label run by Younge is also equally progressive as "The America Negro," and continues to connect the genre's past to its present, pushing it into the new frontier.
Just prior to releasing this record, Younge co-produced a series of albums for the label with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the famed producer from "A Tribe Called Quest." Younge and Shaheed Muhammad's production partnership is called, "The Midnight Hour." In the last two years, they have done records with Roy Ayers, Marcos Valle, Azymuth, Doug Carn and Gary Bartz — musical legends in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
Vibraphonist Roy Ayers is known for songs like "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," and "We Live in Brooklyn, Baby," and is one of the most sampled artists in musical history. Ayers, similar to Younge, defies category. Though his roots may have been jazz, his records melted funk, soul and even disco.
Gary Bartz is a seminal saxophonist who played with Miles Davis and is known for groundbreaking recordings like "Celestial Blues." Marcos Valle, Azymuth and Doug Carn are equally significant and prolific.
Younge not only works with pioneers, but also connects them to the contemporary music scene. Prior to the pandemic, over the last three plus years, Younge and Lojero had organized several sold out shows under the banner of "Jazz is Dead" that featured contemporary stars like Younge and Keyon Harold with their musical heroes like Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, Tony Allen, Vibes from the Tribe and Digable Planets among several others. Younge knows the legacy of freedom music and wants to keep it alive.
With both "The American Negro" and the "Jazz is Dead" record label, Adrian Younge is using music as a vehicle to enlighten listeners and connect generations. They are taking the classical elements and making them new and using history and knowledge to create new understanding. This is why Younge offers "revisionist history" to eradicate old stereotypes and complacency. He knows "the universal language of sound will reverberate beyond [his] years.