As the LA-based recording artist, composer, and producer James the Fifth prepares to self-release his debut studio album later this year, he shares new track ‘Pure Imagination,’ along with an extraordinary music video. (Spoiler alert: Mozart kills himself).
Enjoy the video, and a brief interview with James V, below.
I would say that this is a pretty jarring ending for a video about Mozart goofing around in the desert. What was behind the decision to close it this way?
For awhile I had the main concept of the video down but couldn’t figure out how to end it. One night I was laying in bed falling asleep and thinking about how to end the video — I thought about how it ended musically, and it finishes on this big fuzz guitar hit that comes out of nowhere, so I thought, what visual cue can come in out of nowhere just as abruptly? Half asleep, suddenly I got the vision of a distraught James as Mozart pulling out a revolver and shooting himself in the head. This made me laugh very hard, so hard BY MYSELF that I was rolling in my bed. It completely woke me up and it ruined a night of sleep. After that I felt like it was the right choice.
Do you resonate in any way with the video’s protagonist?
Yes. When I see that I go, “That’s me!”
Tell me a little bit about this debut album you have coming up. How did it take shape? Was there anything you really enjoyed about the creative process?
I’ve been working on it for about 3-4 years now, which makes it sound like it’s *really* good. Some of it IS really good, some it’s just pretty good. Other parts are just serviceable. It’s been done for maybe 3 months now. Much of my creative process is me recording something, listening to it alone in my car for a year and a half, recording drums on it, listening for another 18 months, rerecording drums, and then writing lyrics. I’m joking, but not by that much.
What are you most excited about with attending CalArts for that MFA this fall? Was that a difficult decision to make at all?
Not a difficult decision — I much prefer this to my previous jobs of writing corporate newsletters or spell-checking memos for my bad grammar bosses. I haven’t thought about it a ton since I was accepted; it’s either going to be very good or very bad for me.
NOMAD is the debut musical offering by London-based multidisciplinary creative Ryan Hawaii.
If Ryan Hawaii never entered a studio to work on music, his legacy would still be, without question, set in stone – both at home and abroad. At just 26 years of age, his eclectic, decades-long foray into the fashion industry has landed his work on the backs of Skepta and Cardi B, in the shelves of Selfridges, and at the table with Virgil Abloh. His optimistic outlook, as its own entity, has put career-altering seeds in the trajectories of acts like Slowthai and Rago Foot. Even when he has focused his creative energy towards making music alongside the Neverland Clan (the now-disbanded London hip-hop supergroup comprised of Hawaii, Daniel OG, Omelet, and Okimi), his revitalized afro-punk energy has put him on the radars of Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and an entire rejuvenation of London’s underground scene – without a single studio release to the group’s name.
The span of time between Hawaii’s departure from the Neverland Clan, and the release of NOMAD, has not been uneventful. When Sammy’s World interviewed the prolific UK creative this past March, he happened to be enjoying one of the most particularly chill days he had seen in some time; and, still, he was quite busy compared to the typical character: earlier that day, he had been in a skatepark in Hackney to accompany a musical friend of his to a video shoot; the jeans he wore were part of an ongoing collaboration with the Japanese denim engineering brand Edwin; one would draw the conclusion that somewhere behind the scenes, he was quietly crafting the rollout of his debut musical offering.
Rewinding the tape, however, Ryan Hawaii’s pathway through the ranks of high art did not always entail the same stature and class as the one he seems to infiltrate more and more as the days go by. A majority of Hawaii’s childhood was spent in Catford, a dangerous, underprivileged, ghetto of South East London in which assaults, robberies, and murders were among commonly reported crimes. Growing up surrounded by such an environment molded him by grafting onto his inner being the most pertinent quality detectable in his output: resilience. Ever since he was subject to attempted muggings on several occasions spanning his childhood, his persona has consistently manifested itself into a go-get-it dynamism that bears no fear of creating for itself if nothing is offered on a silver platter. It’s a dynamic that is wholly epitomized by his emergence into the network of Virgil Aboh: it wasn’t like he was offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris Fashion Week to model Off-White before a mob of flashing cameras – he hijacked Abloh’s Selfridges installation with a posse of similarly-minded peers, was subsequently forcibly removed by security, relentlessly tagged the designer about the event on social media, and had an Instagram follow from him less than 24 hours later.
For any such approach to work over a lifelong creative journey, there needs to exist a near-infinite alve of hope deep down. NOMAD contextualizes Hawaii’s supply at a level that envisions his upbringing as an expansive desert – complete with violence, desolation, and melancholy – but still, at the end of the day, the water of hope lies at a greater extent within him than it ever will on the outside. Even in the desert, the high spirits of Ryan Hawaii can never thirst.
‘OWN WORLD,’ the first track on the EP, details in-depth the pressing realities of a youth marred with criminal omnipresence. Yes, as the chorus asserts, the Hawaii’s slums were defined by both the company of gangsters, and the tightrope-walk of not wanting to end up in the slammer – but as he questioned in our interview this past March, must one’s surroundings define all that they may ever become? The answer is no. Poverty-stricken lifestyles both in the UK and the United States have manifested themselves over time in a false determinism that definitively sets life’s offerings equal to either death or jail; and, because of the idea’s inherent bounds, many attached to it address their very existence as futile, given that it will end up one of two ways regardless of any preemptive action. ‘OWN WORLD’ sounds like the crux of where Hawaii arose from – violent, brash, boisterous – but as reflected by a decade-spanning artistry that has risen out of the most hopeless of situations, the creative is not locked to any single idea of failure: the hope is alive, because the hope is invincible.
Hawaii’s impermeable hope is a quality that is illustrated flawlessly in ‘SILENCIO,’ the fourth and second-to-last song on the record. The song’s opening line (which doubles as its chorus) exists as, on many levels, an apotheosis of his approach over the days of his rapid ascent: Silencio / I don’t want to hear that, no / you’re making me anxious, and I don’t want to feel that, no / you see the thing / can’t walk with the pessimism / positive – gotta bring that in. Allowing pessimism into one’s life is a choice. Just like social media allows us to filter out the content matter, opinions, and ideas we simply do not want to see, we are afforded the same exact moment-to-moment choice in real life: do you want to live your entire life influenced by the environment? Or do you yourself want to influence the environment? It’s a matter of simply saying “silence” to the extra. And for Ryan Hawaii, the negativity of the outside world is so blocked off that the only direction possibly left to go – even though he’s so far up the ladder already – is further up.
Under the moniker Wilchai, 20 year-old New-York-based producer and Columbia University undergrad Stephanie Chow creates music that altogether traverses the boundaries of candor, category, and commonality. Following in an eclectic musical pathway that has furnished her ascension since childhood – from falling in love with the guitar via Guitar Hero at six years of age, to becoming enthralled by hip-hop music through her teens, to being slated to open for Gucci Mane just last year – Chow’s self-created audiary landscape presents itself as the epitome of what hybrid ethos she forges herself from: a zeitgeist-defying concoction of past and present, old and new, bygone and future. Any teenager can jam Odd Future-affiliate playlists and learn guitar, just like any millennial (in the youth they swear is far from over) very well could have been awestruck by an Illmatic cassette tape while having a Red Hot Chili Peppers poster hanging up behind them on the bedroom wall. But what happens, Chow poses musically, when such intermingled cultural upbringings leave the realm of consumer, and take the steering wheel into their own hands? The future. And with Wilchai, it’s a bright one.
Written entirely in her bedroom, Chow’s debut single “Deluge” is a living testament to the boundlessness of her artistry. With every listen, something new rises to the surface: Rainy 20th Century evening at a New York City Jazz haunt? Why not. Sentimental home-alone Friday night sigh of relief? Sure. In just shy of three minutes, passion, bliss, longing, intimacy, nostalgia, and practically all else any listener may seek to conjure in music, is found, in a harmony presented so seamlessly that it appears hyperrealistic in its packaging. In one common adage recited by parents across the globe, it is asserted that one must know where they have been in order to know where it is going. Unlike many future-focused acts her age, Wilchai is evidently set on not leaving her influences behind, but bringing them along with her into the tomorrow she will soon champion.
When Sammy’s World asked Chow via email what kept her motivated as of right now, she did not mention success, money or recognition. Rather, the producer’s response was yet one more representation of her all-inclusive approach: “Hearing other people’s music.” Someday, foreseeably, Wilchai will be the “other people’s music” a soon-coming generation of creatives will cite as inspiration. Until then, her selfless philosophy is more than enough fuel to ratify the uphill climb ahead.
Wilchai was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions despite school, music, and the likely hefty set of extraneous responsibilities that come with being a 20 year-old producer at Columbia University. You can check out her answers below.
Being a genre-bending artist, which facet of your music (if you can remember) would you say came first? Tell me a little bit about that journey.
I think the facet of my music that came to me first was the lyrical, story-telling element. That emerged from my love for hip hop. I have an incredibly distinct memory of listening to Channel Orange from start to finish by Frank Ocean for the first time and being utterly sucked into the narratives of the album and the fact that I saw a little bit of myself in them (as a closeted gay kid from the Midwest, hearing Bad Religion was an important moment for me).
How has the balance between music and school/education played out over the course of your career?
That balance has always been difficult for me to maintain. I love music, and I love what I study in school, and as I started getting more into music I felt like I was neglecting one or the other. I’m a sophomore at Columbia University, and I know a lot of really talented artists here who feel like the heaviness of the schoolwork gets in the way of their music. Eventually, I realized that they feed into each other. I would talk to these famous jazz musicians and ask them about their advice on composing or becoming inspired, and they would tell me to just go and live my life. There is no meaningful music without a life to write about. And a big part of my life is learning about the world, and that includes learning not only from school but from the incredibly rich community I’m surrounded with by virtue of being at college in one of the most interesting cities in the world.
Tell me about being slated to open for Clark Beckham and Gucci Mane! That’s so dope. How did that all go down?
When I was about 4, my mom enrolled me in a musical program called Kindermusic. We would go every week and I would hang with other kids, bang around on drums, and be exposed to music as a form of play. It was awesome. Fourteen years later, I got an email from my old kinder music instructor asking me if I’d be interested in opening for a big fundraising concert they were having. Little did I know, Clark Beckham was the main act! He’s an incredibly sweet and super talented guy (when you’re cosigned by Quincy Jones it’s undeniable), and the event was a blast. Gucci Mane was the headliner for Columbia’s yearly student-run music festival, Bacchanal. Around a month before the concert, Bacchanal holds a battle of the bands where the winner gets to open for the concert. I played guitar in the band for Jackie Marchal, my friend and a powerhouse vocalist/songwriter who also goes to Columbia. We ended up winning! It was a big shock to me as a freshman, green behind the ears and new to the Columbia music community. Unfortunately, I never got to actually open for Gucci Mane because the festival (which was supposed to happen at Terminal 5 in April 2020) was canceled because of COVID-19. But it was still very exciting and… who knows what the future holds!
In many ways, it can be said that you represent the future of pop music. This is a very abstract question, but what do you want that (the future of pop) to look like? Is it any different from what you think it’s going to look like as of now?
I want the future of pop to be owned by the people who make the music. There’s a lot of hierarchy and exploitation in the music industry and despite legislative efforts like the Music Modernization Act, we have a long way to go in terms of equitably compensating creator. I’m an optimist, and I’d like to say it will look like that in the future. But it will take a lot of work.
What does music do for you? Is it any different from the effect you want your music to have on your listeners?
Music for me is a way to explore experiences, whether they’re familiar or foreign ones.
What is keeping you motivated right now?
Hearing other people’s music. I’m always inspired by those around me, and there’s so much amazing music coming out right now that keeps me incredibly inspired.
What’s your favorite album, and why?
Channel Orange. Frank Ocean is a master storyteller and the album taught me to hear music not as its own entity but rather as an extension of his relationship with the world. The album spans so much ground, from LA decadence to Black history to struggles with sexuality to bittersweet love songs. It’s so expansive but also so personal, and of course, the production on it is immaculate too.
Say something happens and you have to make a definitive decision: either continue your education and have a guaranteed job lined up for you, or drop everything to pursue music full-time. Which would you choose?
I used to definitely lean toward the former because I felt like I would be burned out by doing music full time, but I’m starting to discover that pursuing music full-time can encompass a lot of things. The music business, producing, songwriting, A&R, and intellectual property … there are so many different hats to wear. My eventual goal is actually to work in music, but not necessarily strictly as a producer or artist. So I would choose music full-time!
Where do you see yourself in the near future?
Hopefully producing and collaborating with artists and people I love. Also, contributing to the music industry to support creative expression in some facet whether through a nonprofit or a business.
Is there a specific artist you’d like to work with someday?
I’d love to work with Cam O’Bi. You might not recognize his name off the bat, but he’s worked with Noname, SZA, Big Sean, Rejjie Snow, and Snoh Allegra. He captures the Chicago soul sound (I’m from central IL so I heard some of it growing up) in such a fresh way while still being true to his roots. I look up to him a lot and would love to chop it up with him one day.
What is the future? What is the past? What is the present? Why is the Financial District empty at 11 AM? Hello??? Can anybody hear me????
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I began thinking particularly compulsively about the hereafter when I started taking time to delve into Matt Martians and his low-key brand of far-out Afro-futurism: the future, I began to realize mid-phase, is the only thing that no human being on Earth has any widely credited acute knowledge of. There are extensively believed, somewhat credible firsthand accounts of what happens after death. Just as much, if not to an even greater extent, there exists a widespread slew of eyewitness accounts that provided enough insight into the paranormal over time for us to build an entire artistic subculture off of their collective essence – how do we know the exact course of action for when the ghost of Mary I of England appears in our bathroom mirror, and not remotely the same for an in-house fire (although it is debatable, for some, which of the two circumstances is more life-threatening)? The intelligence of modern man extends without restraint: hexes; the occult; finessing the stock market; unearthing ancient spiritual practices. And still – regardless of our wits – we do not know a single thing for certain about what tomorrow may look like.
The future was heavy on my mind when I was woken up by my twin sister early this morning. My sister has a soft way of knocking that quickly becomes irritating when left to persist for too long. Rather than make that swift flick-of-the-wrist motion that allows for the kind of hearty pound omnipresent in high-rise corporate headquarters, she pushes her balled hand into the wood for about four sporadic repetitions; she doesn’t ‘rap’ at the door, she taps at it. I was being woken up early – 5:30 AM as opposed to my preferred, remote learning-appropriate 11:something – because I had promised her that I would attend an all-important cooking showdown she was to compete in downtown, with a scholarship to her dream culinary school being on the line. A large part of the reason for which I had obliged was guilt: her school holds annual galas in which student-chefs showcase their skills for the best in the business, and I had not ever been to a single one, by choice. The remainder of the pie chart, selfishly, was the allure of a mini-road trip to the Financial District. How much of my to-listen playlist will I be able to knock out in an hour and thirty minutes? I was scoping out the entire thing in my head, divvying up album lengths, checking the morning news with crossed fingers for slower-than-usual traffic rates.
“It becomes increasingly hard to contemplate the future – let alone through an afrofuturist lens – when the music makes you feel as if the present moment is inescapable.”
Vince Staples’ generally favored 2017 LP Big Fish Theory was what I wound up deciding on for the drive there, because although I was supposed to have listened to it years ago, the circumstances were never just right for me to do so. Generally, there are certain albums I only allow myself to listen to when I am happy. This was one of those albums. The year I was initially planning on hearing it for the first time (2020, surprisingly), I had an acute plan as to how I was supposed to achieve this obscure goal of happiness, after which I would reward myself with the new music: win that big national youth journalism medal (I lost big-time); be invited to talk about your award-winning work on a panel at the Met Museum (again: I lost big-time); be accepted to that competitive pre-collegiate summer program ($13,000 is not the best amount to ask your parents to whip out for one 3-week experience); listen to the Vince Staples album on your way to visit Syracuse University on the first day of spring break. None of this, of course, happened as planned, and I wound up pushing the album to the side because it only really served to remind me of a sadder version of myself. Today – conversely – I was particularly happy because of the fact that I would be missing school for the sake of the road trip. Every piece I had read about Big Fish Theory up to that point, too, painted the LP as the sort of self-directed, forward-thinking, musical time-travel masterpiece that would prove to quench my curiosity about the future if anything at all. It only made sense for me to capitalize on the moment.
We exited the front door at 6:15 AM on the dot – which was, in a very weird way, perfectly in concordance with the suggested departure time given by Google Maps the previous night. I was trying to go into a mental wormhole about the ways it could have been possible that we inadvertently predicted the future, but I did not have the resolve to seek it out as thoroughly, because it was – again – 6:15 AM. There was a thick layer of fog outside when we hit the highway, which would not go anywhere for the remainder of the day. It struck me as deja vu. The last time I listened to an album in the backseat on a foggy early-morning trip was the spring of 2019, when I first heard The Ooz by King Krule. That was a much earlier wake-up, 4 o’clock-ish, and my family and I were on our way to Boston for a college tour the day after Easter. Most of the parallels were too vivid to overlook: moist highway pavement. Yawn-filled Spotify forays. Last-minute, half-awake emails. Once again, I wanted to speculate about how we could have predicted the future in advance; and once again, I was too groggy to do so.
With the way Big Fish Theory started out, I was hyped out of my mind to finally be tapping into some audio-tactile iteration of the future I had been obsessing over. It seemed indubitable that the new-age-oriented reviews I had read were more than kosher: even Staples himself, I learned whilst reading the album’s Pitchfork assessment, referred to it as both futuristic and afrofuturistic over the course of its rollout. Opening track ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ sounded like something constructed as a direct, prototypical brainchild of whatever timeless factory Yeezus was manufactured in. Staples sneered about haters who wanted to see you at the bottom – antagonists who elevated themselves over you in futile hopes of escaping inevitable failure – generational battles within the American socioeconomic system that would not be won any time soon. (Battle with the white man day by day / Feds takin’ pictures doin’ play by play / They don’t ever want to see the black man eat / Nails in the black man’s hands and feet). I was invested, paying every word close attention, bopping my head. The rest of the album, in stark contrast, was so boring that I was angry when it ended – not because it was over (that was the good news), nor because it stirred me with its messaging (which it did, but not as grippingly), but because it was supposed to represent my reward for a happiness I had long fought to achieve. And it did not feel like nearly enough.
Big Fish Theory is, without mistake, a very forward-thinking project. There was one assertion about the record made by the Wire that I thoroughly agreed with while reading it in the backseat: “What’s most thrilling about Big Fish Theory is that it doesn’t sound leftfield or challenging,” the piece mused. “Instead(,) it provides a scintillating snapshot of both the state of the art and the untold history of underground black music for the past 30 years.” Afro-centric lyrical choices, put into conversation with production-adjacent elements ranging from London to Detroit, makes the album equal futuristic principle on a conceptual level: when you weave ghosts of the past so methodically into any telling of the ongoing story they work to provide context for, just like 1+1=2, some discourse surrounding the future is guaranteed to be a byproduct. What made my listen boring, rather, was chiefly staked in delivery. A message of BFT’s poignance was not, in its respective era, best fit to be brought forth by means of drilling the point down one’s ear rather than allowing him to interpret it for himself. By track twelve, the futurism got boring, because it was presented in the same vein as it was in all the other tracks; same 808s; same glitchy melody; same miscellaneous noise. Big Fish Theory stops a listener on the sidewalk, grabs them by the shirt collar, and screams in their face: “I am the future!!!” whereas something like Yeezus conveys the same message by simply emerging from a time machine within eyeshot.It becomes increasingly hard to contemplate the future – let alone through an afrofuturist lens – when the music makes you feel as if the present moment is inescapable.
By consequence, I was a bit more hungry post-listen for something that would make me feel as if I existed somewhere else in time. The sky was getting closer to the blue-tinted gray it would remain at for the day; the fog was not going anywhere. I checked the GPS mounted onto the car’s A/C system. We would be at the site in a little over 50 minutes. Frantically, I began to forage through the extensive to-listen playlist I had started two years prior as a direct result of a similar moment to this one. After a few skips – Forever Changes (1967), Bad Brains (1982), Causers of This (2010), Ted Nugent (1975) – I fixated on something that would not take me into the future, but into the past: a deluxe version of Matt Miller’s 2010 breakout studio mixtape K.I.D.S (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit).
It did not take me long to realize that it is much harder to listen to Mac Miller’s earliest work when you know how his story ends. K.I.D.S sees him as a young, upstart, freshly-graduated MC hellbent on surpassing his idols whilst maintaining his pretty boy swag through the battle scars. The music, the drugs, and the grind top out his list of priorities. The latter two serve more as side-effects than lonestanding motives in comparison to the overarching former.
“When you’re young, not much matters,” he says, without any instrumental backing, in the tape’s opening seconds. “When you find something that you care about, that’s all you got. When you go to sleep at night, you dream of music. When you wake up, it’s the same thing. It’s there on your face, you can’t escape it. Sometimes when you’re young, The only place to go is inside, that’s just it. Music is what I love. Take that away from me and I really got nothin’.”
“-the hustle had to continue, because, after all, I was living in right now, and there was no real way for me to revel in the past for eternity.”
The album artwork of K.I.D.S seems to only accentuate Miller’s point. It’s very simple – in a lightly saturated photograph, he sits on a wooden bench, sneering in a backward cap, shorts, and a school backpack, alongside tattooed peers who tote boomboxes and cigarettes – but it anywise serves to make a near-identical statement to the one N.W.A famously made years ago: We’re here. What are you going to do about it?
I could not stop opening Spotify to stare at the album’s artwork as the music played out. Production-wise, a great deal of the instrumentals on K.I.D.S take after the synth-heavy, cloud rap-adjacent underground wave that would quickly blossom in the era Miller championed – as corny as it sounds, they were eerie to me in the sense that they seemed to emulate, intentionally or not so, the dreams upon which Miller solely relied to persist through his ascent in spite of looming responsibilities attached to coming of age.
‘Get Em Up,’ the third track on the album, was the first instance on our drive in which I felt as if time was altered in some form. I entered the ride in search of some revelation about the future. ‘Get Em Up’ made me feel something just as striking about the past: when you’re in the past, time does not exist. I began to think back to an old interview I conducted, in which the subject broke down his lifelong distinction between being unsuccessful and non-successful. “That approach is all about illegibility,” he concluded, referring to the Hong Kong protests of 2020. “It’s unsuccessful – or not unsuccessful, rather, I should say non-successful. It is deprived of this aspiration towards success.” The same principle, I thought, applies to time in and of itself: to live in the now is to aspire towards beating the clock of fate – but to live in the past is to remove yourself from the equation. There is no sense of imminent necessity to work towards a further point in eternity, because what will happen has already happened; what will exist already exists; you are already all that you will ever evolve into. Not mental absence – mental Non-presence.
“Regardless of what was done – just like the passing of time itself – it would never stop existing, even if we were the last two beings left standing on Earth.”
‘Get Em Up’ featured some of the same thematic me-versus-the-haters bearings as Vince Staples’ ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ (“Young people don’t see you as an equal / They just see you as deceitful, tryna send you back to preschool / You only gettin’ one shot, no redo / Tell them haters keep they mouth shut, eat glue / Bitch, who the fuck you think you playing with? / I’m Justin Bieber meets Jadakiss”) – but the difference was that whereas Staples’ iteration came off as if it was sprinting against time to maintain a brief lead in an unwinnable race to the future, Miller’s own – both literally and through music – existed so deeply in the past that time, nor consequent angst, seemed to have any meaning at all. And timelessness felt much more serene than a futile pursuit of the clock.
We were inching closer and closer into urban New York as the album closed; graffiti grew gradually pervasive, pointy, jagged, utopian buildings protruded from the bottom of my passenger window, and a general sense of place made the setting just as interesting as the soundscape. ‘Paper Route’ played through my headphones as we approached the location of my sister’s competition. The general assertion made by chorus – We do anything to get this paper (…) so for the bullshit we ain’t got later – brought my newly timeless train of thought back down to the regular time scheme of Earth: the hustle had to continue, because, after all, I was living in right now, and there was no real way for me to revel in the past for eternity. It was just as I drew this conclusion that my mother and I – it was just us in the car, besides my sister – were reminded that we would not be allowed to go inside for the duration of the event. A parking space on the street would have meant that I’d get the chance to either catch up on the classwork I had missed from not attending school for the previous few hours, read a book, or (the most likely outcome) take an unintended nap that concluded with me opening my eyes several hours later, bewildered, back in my driveway. In a retrospectively fortunate series of wrong turns and circles, my mother was not able to find any above-ground parking. We drove into an underground garage, after which we were subsequently left with a little over an hour’s worth of time to loosely wander around the Financial District until my sister phoned to say she was finished.
The first direction we went in was towards South Cove Park, a waterfront park looking out on the Hudson River that I had been gawking at as we approached the competition location. My mother allowed me to walk through the park on my own (“Make sure you take pictures!”); she would be waiting for me on a bench by the entrance. I immediately could not help but notice that this was the slowest I had ever walked in any part of Manhattan. The demographic makeup of the Manhattan I was accustomed to – fast-walking businessmen clashing with rowdy, slower-paced urbanized school children all over both Penn Station and Midtown writ large – was completely opposite the one I found myself amidst today. Every human being I saw was either a jogger, an old lady, a dog walker, or an amalgamation of all three. The entire matter felt hyper-surrealistic, post-apocalyptic: the fog thickened, the streets were relatively empty; I was the only one who looked like myself. To satisfy my mother’s request, I set out to take a few photos. I stood at the low-rise fence at the edge of the water and aimed my cell phone camera at the Statue of Liberty. It was a gray shadow shrouded in mist; something obscure at the foot of equally gray waters. Right by the statue, I saw an equally mist-enshrouded mirage of the New York Water Taxi, a small tourist-oriented ferry my family and I used to frequent on Saturdays when myself and my sister were kids. I walked onto a cyclic staircase structure that went up, featured a lone bench overlooking the entire river, and looped right back down to ground level. It was more silent than anything else at the summit. I grew scared after some time alone up there, and made my way downstairs to the street.
I had some time to revisit this concept of a future when I started walking back to my mom. There were so many elements of both my own, and New York’s story – the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, the Taxi Boat – completely submersed in thick fog, that I could not help but get the sensation that I had stumbled into an ominous foretelling of what the hereafter would look like for me. It was terrifying, trippy like if the Ghost of Christmas Future was guiding me through one more harrowing prophecy. Is this what it’s going to be like when I grow up? I interrogated myself as if I knew the answers. Walking dogs in semi-spring weather as an old man on an empty street in New York’s Financial District, with no friends, no legacy, and no contact with the outside world? Is this what the future looks like?
But it was simultaneously, strangely enough, cool in its own right. I felt as if I was not allowed to be present in the time that I existed in – while the few people I encountered were clad in raincoats, tight exercise pants, and running shoes, I donned a sleek spring jacket I had thrifted for cheap on a particularly chilly New Year’s Eve, my go-to pair of pinstriped faux-dressy joggers that never had to be ironed, and the set of long-suffering Adidas Superstars that I felt grew more and more authentic with each rip, scuff, and scratch. The more people glared at me, the more timeless I felt. Not fundamentally absent – fundamentally Non-present.
My mother and I visited a breakfast café that offered indoor dining for a quick meal. I noticed that, again, this was a different New York from the one I identified with: the store was not the minority-run and minority-frequented bodega from which I typically got my pre-class Bacon Egg & Cheese sandwiches. Vibrant conversations in native French (with some Italian here and there) echoed off of the rustic walls. I was asked to take my hoodie off. The Bacon Egg & Cheese I ordered – from a printed menu, for that matter – was offered with the inclusion of smoked salmon, avocado, and kale. It arrived, a fraction of the corner-store usual in size, with an arugula salad and a set of metal utensils. After some initial discomfort, I decided that I would try to look the part. I whipped out my copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 and began to read. I crossed my legs and placed my cell phone out of sight. I felt cultured as I sipped from the bare water I ordered instead of my usual Arizona iced tea, politics-oriented book in hand, salmon in my bite-sized breakfast wrap.
“And just like music, the future, the past, and our very beings are equally resurrectable if we don’t waste the present worrying about a race against the clock we can never win.”
We stayed in that café for as long as we could, my mother slowly pecking away at a yogurt to kill time before we would have to go outside again. When we finally got the boot, she suggested that we walk through Brookfield Place (formerly the World Financial Center), a posh indoor mini-mall complete with curved glass ceilings and high-end fashion stores. As I talked to my mom about why I would never wear an untucked shirt no matter if it was specifically manufactured to be worn that way, I was cut off by my own alarm at a satanic-looking, blood-crimson, eerily postured mannequin that glared out from the Gucci store’s window. Of everything I had encountered – the apparent ghost town, the silent future, the top of the staircase – this imagery jarred me the most. I got the sense from it that no matter what happened, time was always running out. I could not kill the mannequin. Nor could I outlive it. Regardless of what was done – just like the passing of time itself – it would never cease to exist if left alone, even if we were the last two beings left standing on Earth. When I imagined the prospect of us two being the last two beings on the planet, I did not want to think about it anymore.
A short time after we left the mall, my sister informed us that she had finished her competition (as of now, she is slated to get official results in a month). It was a colorful walk back to the vehicle. She was in tears when we first met with her to pick her up, but she revealed in conversation that it was only a byproduct of how nervous she was. My mother and I reassured her as we drove onto the highway. When the conversation evolved to one strictly held between the two ladies – as these conversations often do – I opted, on a whim, to put in my headphones and listen to one more unplanned album that would give me some closure on the future – I was tired of feeling pessimistic towards it, and I needed to hear something that would give any form of definitive closure.
Because I always viewed Pharrell Williams as a sort of musical Morpheus who delivered undercover messages from the hereafter one song at a time, I chose to hone in on something of his own. The album I settled on was N.E.R.D’s NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES, released in 2017. I had first become familiar with the release in my junior year of high school, when, after I had fallen asleep at the conclusion of an LP I did not enjoy, I opened my eyes to Spotify’s automatic album-based radio session shuffling to ‘Rollinem 7’s.’ For too many reasons to list, it woke me right up.
The same, more or less, was true for today. NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES was the future – not because it told me it was – but because it acted like it. There was no outright strategy to it sounding like something from beyond today. Every song told its own distinct story in its own distinct manner. The energy never died.
The sole thing that most definitively gave me the answer that I had been looking for all day, albeit, was not the entire album, but a single song: ‘1000’ began with the kind of upstart, percussion-heavy structure typical of Pharrell Williams’ career-long leaning. Future’s auto-tuned trap manifesto solidified an already-tangible utopian aura. There was, dryly-yet-strikingly, not as much emphasis placed on melody as there was rhythm and rhyme, old school boom-bap influence spiked with a shallowly placed wink at generational ambiguity.
But then – after a complete cut-out of the music, and two hooted declarations from Pharell (“In the mirror there’s a hero! One, zero, zero, zero!”) – blaring synths. Aggressive, echoing drums. Yelled boastings about hefty bank accounts. Just like that, the color had returned to a once-monochrome musical canvas.
The music itself was not unlike anything I had ever heard before, and I was forced to ask myself why I reacted to it the way I did. I seldom dance whilst listening to music. When a batch of memes came out criticizing people who listened to Playboi Carti while sitting down in a meditative state, I resonated not with the attack, but with the defense – even when hearing Whole Lotta Red for the first time on Christmas morning, I sat up alone in my living room couch, chin propped up on my fist, meditating on what I was listening to word-by-word. With ‘1000,’ I unleashed a seat belt-restrained, hyper-ballistic, back and forth jerk that made me look like a prisoner in a straitjacket.
It was when I woke up in my driveway far after the final track faded out, and – by instinct – replayed the song after my mother opted to go on a quick BJ’s run, that it finally registered in full what had hit me so hard: the music was resurrectable. And just like music, the future, the past, and our very beings are equally resurrectable if we don’t waste the present worrying about a race against the clock we can never win.
I realized that no one ever really dies. Time doesn’t die either – but as long as now remains now, the future is as futile as any quest to outlive it.
One of the most poignant assertions of black America’s age-long struggle for racial equality is that the Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Harlem native Gil-Scott Heron originally coined the term decades before the millenium, recording a poem of the same title for his collection Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970. Nine stanzas of variations reiterate the opening lines: “You will not be able to stay home brother./ You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out.” Heron’s words served as a wake up call to the oppressed, that change is only incurred from action, not the wait for it to appear across a television screen.
From the hollering mouths of Public Enemy, however, a verbatim restatement of Heron’s words sounded more like a warning throughout Countdown to Armageddon: Public Enemy’s revolution wasn’t going to be televised, because Public Enemy’s revolution wasn’t going to be so TV-friendly.
People often confuse militancy with terrorism; It’s a misconception that put bullets in the brains of Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and a sizable chunk of the Black Panther Party – but, to be militant is simply to deny an oppressor the satisfaction of turning the other cheek.
Public Enemy was militant. Public Enemy was radical. And Public Enemy had no intentions of making either cheek available.
The album launches with the unmistakable impression of a riot, the collective roar of the audience and the canine growl of Professor Griff meshing with sirens sure to evoke nightmares for any protective parent. “Alright, let’s make some fuckin’ noise!”
The MC’s command fades perfectly into its fulfillment. On the very next track, Bring the Noise, consecutive screams of “too black, too strong” set the tone for what ends up being a hectic exposition of anger in musical form.
The chaotic production of the album is presumably uncomfortable to the first-time listener. But America didn’t need another record to bop it’s head to. Public Enemy yelled every word, because the studio was the only place that opened its ears. America was more eager to consume black music than it was to consume black radicalism – and if it wasn’t going to listen to the streets, it was definitely going to listen to the radio — because African-American voices only mattered to the U.S when they provided a new dance, trend, or culture to be appropriated without credit.
When Public Enemy screamed into the mic, it sounded like a command – and that’s exactly what America needed.
Prophets of Rage, the namesake of a radical rock supergroup to be formed decades later, sees the philosophical lack of the encouraged revolution put on blast: “Attack lies in the books that you’re readin’/ It’s knowledge of yourself that you’re needin’.” Chuck D cites that colorism is indeed written into the English language, and the casual association of malice with any “black” insignia (“black magic,” for example) has long been rooted in a problematic concept that light signifies good, and dark, evil.
But if your parents haven’t told you the solution, Public Enemy will: “Yo, why don’t you just back up from the TV, read a book or something/ Read about yourself, learn your culture, you know what I’m saying?” (She Watch Channel Zero?!)
And it’s kosher. Because, after all, the revolution will not be televised.
There are two general spheres of artistic resistance, and the most popular of these is direct – thematic denunciation of an opposed concept through a medium of the creator’s preference.
The alternative sphere, however, is of simply being. By thriving in one’s identity rather than assimilating into whatever wave a culture happens to be on, backbone becomes resistance within itself.
When I first listened to Chocolate Chip, it was Father’s day, and I was on a road trip through Long Island’s richest neighborhoods. The further we drove, the grander the houses became, the higher the hills rose, the angrier I grew – not only because my community was Hooverville compared to what I witnessed; but, moreso because I was black — and in a neighborhood full of riches and white skin, the feeling of inadequacy seemed like something I would spend an entire lifetime confined to.
It was then, though, that I pressed play on Hayes’ record.
Chocolate Chip was not an album recorded from an activist’s standpoint. From cover to cover, it was a soulful forty-minute romance proposition to lovers lost – more fit for a satirical Progressive advertisement than a rallying cry for black excellence – but, where I was impressed was the insane amount of racial pride that emanated from the record’s production alone. Because it clung to roots in the black soul music with which I resonated, Hayes’ words became suffice for the ones that couldn’t come out of my mouth.
As the mansions and beach houses of Northport teased my eyes, Hayes’ “I can’t stop myself from wanting you” (That Loving Feeling) validated my longingness.
As we were glared at by a white family upon turning onto a private road, the percussive wah-wah of the title track served as a reminder of self-security and identity.
Hayes sang for elusive lovers. I listened for an elusive lifestyle. The artwork for Chocolate Chip is very similar to that of Black On Both Sides – both Mos Def and Isaac Hayes are shrouded in their own darkness, self-assured in their stares at the consumer.
It’s difficult to interpret their eyes, but perhaps visage is better not construed. The music of both records articulates things lips cannot.
When Malcolm X was incarcerated in 1946, he channeled a freshly acquired love for literature to join the prison debate team. It was then that he learned the truth about Jesus Christ. He descended from the original Hebrews having settled in Jerusalem – a dark-skinned people – and America had rewritten the color of his skin to validate immoral race relations.
So much of history has been similarly white-washed, that the cover of Negro Swan almost comes off as a surprise. Yes – it’s a shock to see angelic wings, the ethereal, and even the mere idea of heaven juxtaposed with audacious melanin.
But that’s where Dev Hynes finds his niche. In 2016’s Freetown Sound, he impishly startles audiences with the rarely-commercialized image of candid black love, a hyper-staged, scantily clad juncture of two teenage bodies gracing the cover. On Negro Swan, a black angel adorned in white glares through the sleeve, side-eyed, at the consumer, as if to condemn him/her of the shock they must be feeling. Hynes finds amenity in shining a spotlight upon vantablack; he laughs when it bursts into flames.
LP number four sees African-American and LGBTQ communities placed under the microscope. In it’s initial press release, Hynes dubbed the record “an exploration of my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color” — for the angel gracing it’s front, this three way intersection between depression, atonement, and rejuvenation serves as a holy trinity.
The quality of music is consistent. Each number is defined by a warming acoustic ambience, soft in sound, heavy in subject matter.
The majority of the theme, though, is not conveyed in the melodies themselves. Alternately, it is encased within the obscured voice that emerges in brief intervals of speech, fades in as the tracks fade out, and rises to prominence when the acoustics simmer down.
At the end of Runnin’, it narrates it’s way, barely above a whisper, through recurring experiences with a “faint, irritating, incessant buzzer.” “The first (time I heard it) was, was within myself,” it says. “Um, to stop pretending, To stop performing in ways that people wanted me to, to actually show up for myself, And to be myself.”
The opening seconds of Jewelry strike a similar chord. This time, the voice speaks of it’s favorite images, beginning with those of queer and black individuals not being welcomed into certain spaces.
“. . . Yet we walk in and we show all the way up.” Vindication grows exponentially with each sentence. “People try to put us down by saying ‘She’s doing the most,’ or ‘He’s way too much’.”
“ . . . But, like, why would we want to do the least?”
Doing the least is far from Hynes’ agenda. Combining his own lyrical prowess with the superstardom of acts like A$AP Rocky, Steve Lacy, and Puff Daddy, not only does he advocate for a lifestyle oft-dismissed, but he ensures that his insistence is not ignored.
Above all, Hynes’ resistance exists within simply being comfortable in his own skin – and that is something he proves to have no trouble with.
When Mos Def shouted “Good Morning Vietnam!” two minutes into Brooklyn, he wasn’t talking to the war-torn nation on Asia’s southern border.America was home to several of its own Vietnams, domestic war zones worsened by legal neglect – and Brooklyn fell under that category. Yasiin Bey was simply calling it what no one else dared to.
Black On Both Sides crowned Mos Def as one of New York’s premiere conscious MCs amidst an era that saw politics influence a growing woke-rap subsphere. In an hour and seventeen minutes, Bey swept neglected issues – the Vietnams being one – out from under the rug, thrusted them into the face of society, and demanded that the elephant in the room be dealt with accordingly. Not many sounded like the young Brooklynite; he rhymed in a gravelly, arrogant garble that served to somehow make the average listener feel guilty of a crime not committed, like the glare of a Manhattan deli clerk upon one’s exit without having bought anything.
The controversially named 15th track was a slap-bass heavy, uncanny funk time-capsule, laced by Mos Def with a series of literary digs at unresolved race relations: “Say they want you successful, but that ain’t the case/ You living large, your skin is dark, they flash a light in your face.”
“You got a lot of societies and governments/ Tryin’ to be God, wishin’ that they were God,” he raps in the opening track. “They wanna create satellites and cameras everywhere/ And make you think they got the all-seeing eye.”
Black On Both Sides is artistically represented in bold simplicity. Yasiin Bey, a New Yorker at his rawest – ice on his neck, wife beater on his back – stares directly at whoever it is that is due to make a judgment of him within the next hour and seventeen minutes. His surroundings are true to the title: Mos Def is black on both sides – and with a 77 minute long epistle on the darkness, he seeks to familiarize those willing to listen with the light.
A year after the Civil Rights Act purported to solve America’s most imminent domestic problem, tensions abroad quickly put out what light remained at the end of a long tunnel for society. On August 18th, 1969, though, the ghost of such hope was conjured by what had extinguished it in the first place: ear-splitting, brain-melting, torpedo-blasting pandemonium. From the fingers of a black Native American, the Star Spangled Banner emanated in a war-torn reality masked by the empty promise of justice for all.
Counterculture is generally defined as a lifestyle opposed to prevailing social norms. In decades prior to the aforementioned, allegiance to the flag took shape as a prerequisite for citizenship – but, a rising cultural wave apexed by 1969’s Woodstock festival made it further evident that the opposite was possible. Jimi Hendrix was the last act to take the stage. The national anthem was far from the first song he played.
“I thought it was beautiful,” he mused in a subsequent appearance on the Dick Cavett Show.
Though the question of whether or not it was arose from the warrish manner in which it was played, it applied universally in that America had spent the past year asking itself the same thing: Is there beauty within resistance? Over the previous decade, the answer pointed further and further towards an affirmative.
Just a year before Woodstock, 1968’s Democratic National Convention – one of two annual events serving to celebrate U.S Democracy – culminated in what was dubbed by various media outlets “a police riot” in response to protests against the war overseas. But it was beautiful. It was “our energy, music, politics, school, religion, play, battleground, and our sensuality,” Abbie Hoffman wrote in Woodstock Nation (1969). Militance grew into the mainstream; narratives quickly slipped out of the government’s control.
As for Hendrix’s performance, though, melody (or lack thereof) was not the only element questionable. The guitarist did not reserve the anthem for an opening standardized by sporting events, school districts, and other performances nationwide – within a few minutes of playing it, he was walking off the stage. Chords were supplanted by chaos, riffage was superseded by rebellion. Patriotic certainty was challenged by the question mark that is revolution.
Hendrix briefly added to the dialogue before moving on to Cavett’s next question. “It’s not unorthodox. I’m American. So I played it.” There was no legitimate incentive to any patriotic act on that day. Before him – both figuratively and literally – promises of freedom, peace, and harmony symbolically crumbled in the drudgy muds of indiscretion and infidelity. But he was American. So he played it.
The rendition was forthright in its flaws, and that was more of a suggestion to America than a serenade.
“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long,” Walt Disney Enterprises declared in a 20th Century marketing campaign. “We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious . . . and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
All human beings are hereditary artists – whether we like it or not – because all human beings are guaranteed to leave this planet having created something. Whether the offering be a memory, an idea, or a series of footprints, our collective existence is founded upon a cycle of conception that never really stops. Humans create smaller humans. Those smaller humans spend a good chunk of the next century fertilizing Earth with new doctrines (if not leeching off of the ones that already exist). Those humans grow up to create a batch of brand new smaller humans. The pattern continues.
And so, given our innate artistic nature, there is no surprise that we people often flock to new habitats, biomes, environments, in search of renewed creative energy. This is often practiced under the guise of ‘clearing one’s head.’ Whenever we find that our production has stalled, our minds (in primitive immediacy) instinctively search for the new element, because – revisiting 20th Century Walt Disney’s marketing campaign – we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. We are inspired by seeing strangely structured Anglo-Saxon cathedrals; we are inspired by the otherworldly hipsters loitering daily over loosie cigarettes; we are inspired in walking past characters whom we have never encountered before and will never again encounter. Our lives are very much dictated by our moment-by-moment surroundings.
If the purgatory marked by mid-March to present day has bestowed anything upon us, it is the challenge to remain creative (human) though faced with mandatory barring of the aforementioned process. Alas, quite often, it is the first breath of fresh air beyond prison walls that reminds a convict of life’s many meanings.
New York City has epitomized that life for creators past and present. What has made Manhattan stand amongst few worldwide cultural epicenters for so long is, in part, the symbiotic relationship it upholds between living and nonliving art; man himself happily juxtaposed with what man has made. Much like the earlier-referenced human cycle of conception, NYC exists in incessant orbit: the art within it is omnipresent – amateur subway violinists, Washington Square poets, skateboard-toting teenagers – it feeds into a manifesto broadcast globally on a pop-culture level (ex: Uncut Gems ), then with the gospel shared, parishioners from all over flock to the island in hopes of sucking up the magic while contributing that much more.
One of many things COVID-19 has made equal amongst us is a recalibration of daily life behind the screen. For most, the transition was in full effect by April. We may have set up impromptu office spaces within the confines of our bedroom walls, gotten comfortable enough to sport pajama pants beneath our computer cameras, or grown accustomed to full-on Zoom etiquette, naturally knowing which meetings to turn our screens on for and which ones not to. But what filled the void of literally being outside? For me, at the outset, the answer was television. I subconsciously found myself tuning in to programs that somehow portrayed the familiar environment from which I was removed: Law & Order SVU, Billy on the Street, and Friends were in constant rotation. Even if I wasn’t intently watching. Hearing brazen f-bombs over the chaotic background noise of drill-machine-fire-engine-pandemonium was, for once refreshing – because it was normal. And I hadn’t seen normal in a long time.
But inevitably, with weeks of it, the TV grew monotonous and ineffective, like when the placebo finally stops working on a dying patient. Since that point, the new cure has existed purely in memories – the most prominent of which came back to me when Parliament Funkadelic’s Good to Your Earhole was queued up on my daily Spotify shuffle.
The first time I heard Good to Your Earhole, I was walking to the Lexington Avenue-59th Street subway station after my first day interning with an art museum as part of a high-school program. It was sometime in July – the clouds were gray, slowly blackening, occasionally grumbling – but, we were in that perfect pocket of dense humidity that precedes heavy rainfall and feels more like an ethereal springtime. I had my headphones in, skipping through every open crevice I could find between the bodies surrounding me, the endgame being to reach Lexington before the thunderstorm came. My skipping eventually calibrated itself to the music. It was cautious. There was a great part of me that didn’t want my fellow commuters to recognize how much fun I was truly having – bearing the title of a New Yorker and committing the act of enjoying oneself felt almost sacrilegious.
Yet – somehow- before I could get halfway to Lexington, the rain fell. And with the rain, my inhibitions followed.
As I laid in bed sometime mid-May with my Spotify playlist serving its time-machine duties to an acute perfection, the mental image seared into my head was one of me – soaking wet short-sleeve button-down stuck to my body, khaki dress pants darkened and made heavy by rainwater – bopping my head uncontrollably past estranged stares, angry briefcase-carriers, and hordes of shuffling feet en route to Lexington Avenue.
In a way, we were all at one point existing in the same Lexington-avenue-bound universe. The traumatic amputation of lives we once knew loomed above us like black clouds threatening to wash normalcy away with thunder; we all unintentionally found ourselves immersed in this rat-race of who could be the most productive (though beneath it all, we carried disgruntlement in briefcases alongside us); there was the element of wanting to reach a destination, whether it be the next stimulus check, the end of the school year, or mere happiness, before the storm could sweep us under.
Perhaps most importantly, though, we learned to dance amidst the rainfall. Instagram live streams became raucous concert halls. The streets in front of our houses became means for otherwise-canceled celebratory gatherings. The rooftops of our apartment buildings became yoga studios and tennis courts.
Someday – however far in the future that may be – the clouds will part over New York City. Until that day comes, we will be just fine. Because around here, we don’t look backwards for very long.