Fiercely independent aptly describes MATANA ROBERTS
One of the more compelling young artists to have arrived on the scene the last few years is saxophonist-composer and AACM member Matana Roberts. She wrote recently to express her appreciation for the Ain’t But a Few of Us Independent Ear series conversations with journalist-author-educator Robin D.G. Kelly, he of the monumental and much-discussed recent book Thelonious Monk: An American Original. Matana’s remarks at the time begged further inquisition, particularly regarding music writers she’s encountered along the way and her sense of the black audience for her music.
In your comments you say that you "rarely get interviewed by a music journalist who focuses on creative music exclusively that is female of any color." Is that a suggestion that you’ve indeed been interviewed by female music writers of color in the past, though they have not specifically been writers who cover music in the more "creative" vein? Or are you saying that your encounters with female music writers of color in general have been few and far between? I ask that because clearly female music writers of any color — be they identified as critics or journalists — are in short supply, unless you’ve had other experiences.
I have been interviewed by female music writers, journalists and scholars on more than one occasion but I can count only being interviewed by a female writer of color twice within the last 8 year period, and that would be most recently — by Carolle Trolle of the New York Examiner and recently abroad by Sylvia Arthur of the UK’s Lucid Magazine. You can read both of those articles online.
Let’s say in a more balanced world you were to be interviewed by a female music writer of color — a female creative music writer — how do you suppose that would ultimately affect reader perceptions of you and your music? Are you implying that perhaps a female creative music writer of color might more thoroughly get it as far as why you choose to express your music in the ways you do?
Well, the only thing I would say about a female music writer of any color is that I think inappropriate questions related directly to my biology might possibly be avoided(?). Though that’s a generalization as ignorance does not have a sex-specific identity and I have experienced this both from writers and journalists of all colors regardless of gender, but the nice thing about working with a writer of color is that sometimes (not all of the time) they will understand certain cultural nuances, in terms of references, etc. that other folks might not get.
Sometimes working with some female writers, regardless of the color line, there have been situations where I felt like they were really trying to lock me into a corner — just to get an overly staunch feminist soundbite from me. Have I been mistreated by men in my profession? Yes. Have I experienced discriminatory and lecherous behavior by men in my development as a musician — a very loud and resounding YES. Really as soon as puberty hit I got to learn first hand about all these imbalances. Most of this nonsense has fallen to the wayside, though there are still some residuals for sure.
I think in this day and age just stating the obvious feminist trappings (of which I am quite proud of by the way) of my work choice is frankly passe. It’s a tired dialogue that focuses solely on the victimization of women’s choices and it doesn’t open the dialogue up enough for a new understanding and progression. In the name of art I have been victimized yes, but I refuse, in the name of art, to be a victim. Those are two very different aesthetic choices if you examine them close enough. I have actually in the past few years tried to shy away from gender-specific interviews — particularly in academia — because of this.
But in a general sense I have found female writers to at least have a bit more tact overall in terms of approaching sensitive questions that revolve around the sphere of what womanhood is or isn’t supposed to be. And though it’s not necessary, it’s a nice bonus if it’s a woman of color who understands the extra baggage attached to female artists of color that get boxed into almost a simpledom arena just because of the visual. I try to stay away from that baggage as much as I can, but it is difficult when doing some of the work I am doing now, particularly about the history of my ancestry. As I am discovering in real time exactly how that baggage got packed in the first place.
In our recent exchange you said that you don’t see significant numbers of black musicians playing creative music. Is that related more to the cutting edge, where one might closely identify your music, or in general? I ask that because I continue to see young black musicians of your generation playing what some might characterize as the more traditional forms, but perhaps not necessarily in the freely experimental or cutting edge mode where you operate. Is that a fair assessment?
That’s a fair assessment. There seems to be a steady supply of African Diasporic-looking musicians playing the more traditional forms for sure, some of them are among some of my closest friends, and some of them are very open to playing all types of music. Good music is good music. But in my observation (over my somewhat short career) within the cultural framework of how musicians relate to each other, I have observed a strange disparity between them and musicians of color that are doing the more experimental forms sometimes. I think this exists partly because, in my opinion, there is possibly a silent shame there(?). In the history of this music the more experimental forms appear to be championed by young white audiences more than black and vice versa. The more traditional jazz forms seem to have been supported over the years by the black bourgeoisie.
I think there is a direct correlation between traditional jazz and organizations like the NAACP/DuBois’ talented tenth model and the experimental musics that seemed championed by organizations like the Black Panthers for instance. And this is an old and tired model to bounce off in some ways but just for the sake of examples I will use them. My parents were following a radical strain in the 70s; my father from a poor family, a Black Panther for a very short time… There was always Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Revolutionary Ensemble, Albert Ayler records playing all the time in my home, because my parents found those experimental musicians inspiring in a time that seemed experimentation was more necessary for the progression of race understanding. But growing up on Chicago’s southside I straddled both of these spheres (the black bourgeoisie and the black radical movement) because there are parts of the southside that are very, very conservative. Michelle Obama’s upbringing is a good example of this in many ways. Even though I feel over the years in the black community jazz musicians were looked down on sometimes because of the drug issues of the age, I believe at least their take on cultural refinement through presentation and musical style was more acceptable than the stand up, experiment for the sake of experimentation, fight the power-type that essentially put the Art Ensemble’s kids through college.
I also think playing the more experimental forms is sometimes seen as a certain nod to "Uncle Tom-ism" of days past — an extension of an African American buffoonery tradition in American pop culture and beyond. Where the traditional construct is still romanticized in the African American community as a respected art form, but in my opinion can still extend to areas of buffoonery and Uncle Tom-ism — showing once more that black folks know how to "stay in their place". The radical black voice has not always been celebrated, even more so if there is any hint of co-option outside of the African American community. As much as I love the history of this music there is nothing radical and force forward moving anymore about playing racist tin pan alley tunes.
I mean look at who the Obamas invited to the White House to start their jazz series — the one and only Wynton Marsalis. What does that say about the progression of this music? In my opinion… not much. Why showcase someone typical, in this new age why not expose the public to the untypical; it’s a lot more interesting and thought-provoking. Wynton Marsalis? Why not some experimental elder iconoclast like Bill Dixon? You know it’s a generational thing too; my generation was inspired by a different form of experimentation that bloomed from jazz in many ways and that would be the legacy of R(hythm) A(nd) P(oetry). And a lot of the musicians of my generation went that direction — perhaps that was a smarter move as Lord knows my music is not paying the bills right now.
In my humble opinion the African American soundmaker who is out there trying to create sounds that defy category is the musician who is actually reaching for what was the real tradition of jazz is in the first place; the tradition of being creative first. Being creative with as much purpose and originality as one can muster. I believe many of my heroes are spinning in their graves at the idea that there are people out here propogating the art form as their "originality" when it is really a shell of someone else’s historical life. And for the record, I’m not trying to paint myself as some utopic model — I am far from it and have a lot more to do before I can really be considered someone pushing those boundaries, but I say this all in defense of those that I know who do, I am only scratching the surface now but I strive to get where they are.
After this initial response to the question, I told Matana about an interview I had with the late, great NEA Jazz Master vocalist Betty Carter. When the subject of the more experimental forms of jazz came up Betty dismissed much of it by pronouncing that dissonance is simply not part of the black experience, therefore black folks simply ain’t hearin’ free or experimental jazz.
The thing is, I believe dissonance is so interwoven in the African American experience in ways that are just too painful for folks to remember or tackle. A musician friend who plays the more traditional, accepted form of this music once said to me that "at the end of the day, it’s so hard being black in America, why would anyone want to listen to music that is essentially a polemic in sound on the underlying issue". I’m paraphrasing there, but essentially the more traditional forms allow our people to relax and forget just how hard life can be(?). I don’t agree with this, mainly because I grew up in a household where speaking up was an imperative so speaking up in creativity is imperative as well. But unfortunately this means I get boxed into the avant garde, because there’s no room for questioning the status quo anywhere else these days. But especially now, with a dared-to-be president named Obama, we as artists across color lines making experimental art have to protest even more loudly than before with our work. What it means to be a person of color in America is changing before our very eyes… time to celebrate, document, cherish, yet question and challenge as well… the same old answers won’t work anymore. I am a traditionalist at heart but why keep beating the same old traditions?
What would you recommend as far as developing a larger black audience for the more experimental side of the music?
I’ve been at a loss on this one for awhile. I’m not sure if it’s possible; perhaps the music is just not inspiring enough anymore to support a culture that no longer neeeds to be reminded that we have the power to move a country. With Obama in the White House we obviously already did!
Stay tuned to The Independent Ear for another forthcoming contribution from Matana Roberts.
Hear MATANA ROBERTS on The Chicago Project.
Look for her next release, recorded live in Europe,
in the spring…