J Hus O2 Brixton Academy review: the Stratford rapper celebrated his London homecoming with extravagance

J Hus has had an incredible year and as 2017 starts to round off he’s topped it off with an incredible first headline show at the O2 Brixton Academy in Brixton, South London. At the end of last week, it was announced that “Form 696” was being scrapped after newly elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan had called for a review of the form’s use earlier this year. Since 2005 promoters and licensees have been asked to complete a “Form 696” as a risk assessment for hosting music events with DJs and MCs. Many in the grime and UK rap scene have accused the form of being a racist way to target black youth. It’s no coincidence that the form was introduced in 2005 just after grime music began to break into the mainstream. And grime music is primarily produced by black artists and at least in 2005 its main consumers were black. 12 years later, the grime scene is healthy after a resurgence in 2014. With perfect timing comes J Hus who just had an extravagant and successful first headline show in London. J Hus is a truly unique artist who is very difficult to categorise. Though there is some grime influence very little of his music can be classified as grime at all. He sounds like no one else. His music is a cocktail of UK afrobeats, dancehall, trap, UK garage, grime and hip-hop. He began his musical career in 2015 and after a series of freestyles released the infectious hit single “”Lean & Bop.” Earlier this year, he released Common Sense, the Mercury-nominated album which is one of the best albums to come out of the UK in a while and a future classic. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the sound of Black Britain. Stratford born and raised with a Gambian mother, his influences are as Black British as they are by their origin in West Africa, the Caribbean and the diaspora.

I was particularly excited for this show, J Hus being one of my favourite artists and having booked my tickets several months ago I eagerly anticipated the gig. To my disappointment, in my excitement in buying tickets I must have accidentally bought the wrong tickets which meant I was in the “circle” the balcony in the venue. Despite not being able to be in the moshpits which are some of the best parts of seeing live music, I was still excited to see the show. The supporting acts were Young T and Bugsey, NSG and DC and while they all brought energy to the eager young crowd they couldn’t match up to the legendary show J Hus was about to put on. On stage, there were four Mercedes-Benzs and a giant rotating fisherman’s hat (in reference to the song “Fisherman”). The fisherman’s hat rotated to reveal a full live band and J Hus came out and performed the title track “Common Sense.” Audience members were given a plastic band which I didn’t think much of until J Hus performed “Closed Doors” and simultaneously everyone’s bands lit up in fluorescent blue. On stage was a large screen which had visuals related to each song, the lights flashed and flames flew on stage (literally lit) making it a visually stunning show. When he began to perform “Mash Up”, MoStack the featured artist came on the stage to perform his verse. Krept and Konan then came on to perform MoStack’s track “Liar Liar (Remix)” which also featured J Hus. And as if the audience could not be embarrassed with enough riches later Dave come on to perform his track “Samantha” featuring J Hus. I wish I didn’t have to imagine what it was like to be in those moshpits but they looked incredible. I was just glad to be there. When he performed the track “Clartin” he encouraged the biggest moshpits and from what I saw they were mad. He ended the show with his biggest hit yet, “Did You See.” And what an apt song, he left myself and the 5000 plus crowd marvelling at what he’d just done.

Why do we have Black History Month in the UK?

Let me start this article off by saying as a black person I’m going to be biased. I do think we need to continue celebrating Black History Month in the UK. I will never change my opinion on that but if you maybe think otherwise I hope this article can convince you or at least explain a few things. This year marks the 30th anniversary that Black History Month has been celebrated in the UK. Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926 in the United States when it was proposed by African-American historian Carter G. Woodson. It became Black History Month in 1969 when it was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University (big up American Kent) and began to be celebrated across the United States in 1976. Black History Month was first celebrated in the United Kingdom in 1987 when it was organised through the leadership of Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo.

Black Americans and Black British people have a close but difficult relationship. Black British people are like the younger siblings of Black Americans. We always have love for each other in our collective struggle against white supremacy, systemic racism and oppression but there’s always a little bit of tension between us. Most black people in the United States are descendants of West and Central African slaves who were kidnapped and enslaved for hundreds of years. Black people have been slaves in the United States from 1619 to 1865, that’s almost 250 years that black people, humans, were the chattel of white people. They were tortured, killed, lynched, drowned, dehumanised. So though slavery in the United States officially ended just over 150 years ago we need to realise it’s not that long ago and we are still seeing the effects of that oppression today. Most African-Americans suffer from generational trauma as a result of slavery.

Let’s bring things home, we often forget that the transatlantic slave trade had a triangular route. Millions of Africans were captured from West and Central Africa, transported through Britain’s port cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and London between the 16th and 19th centuries. British ships carried an estimated 2,600,000 enslaved Africans in the 18th century to the Caribbean and the Americas. I remember learning briefly about the slave trade in secondary school in a single lesson yet we had several lessons on Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and World War II. I’m not undermining the importance of learning about the holocaust but at least 3 million Africans, likely much more, died as a result of slavery. Is that not genocide? In some ways I can’t blame the ignorance of most British people to the atrocities of the British Empire but that is really not an excuse in 2017. Schools have a moral responsibility to not skim over the atrocities of the British Empire but to address them soberly without whitewashing history. White guilt is not an excuse for the majority of British people to not know how 3% of their population got here. It’s a common misconception that the first black people to arrive in the Britain arrived in 1948 when the MV Empire Windrush landed in Britain carrying 492 passengers, the majority of which were from the West Indies (or Caribbean). Of course we recognise that was the beginning of large scale immigration of black people to the UK but it is now known that black people have had a presence in the UK since the Roman era. It should also be acknowledged that black people were also enslaved in the UK, of course not to the extent they were in the Americas and Caribbean but it isn’t to be ignored. Ignatius Sancho was the first known Black Briton to vote in a British election, he gained fame in his time as “the extraordinary Negro.” Olaudah Equiano was a freed slave of Igbo extraction from the eastern part of present-day Nigeria who supported the British movement to end the slave trade. I did not learn about these important figures until I came to university to study English Literature (and Film).

An article by Yomi Adegoke was recently published in The Guardian about Black History Month, its first line was “Black British” is often seen as oxymoronic.” And this couldn’t be truer. Speaking as someone who is a British citizen but was born in Nigeria, moved to the UK as a child and had to assimilate I consider myself Black British, British-Nigerian and a Nigerian-born British person all at once. It makes things difficult when I face resistance when I identify with a particular identity. Speaking to a black person about where they’re from is often very different to speaking to a white person. While most black people in the UK are descendants of African and Caribbean immigrants (or immigrants ourselves) who have been arriving in huge numbers since the late 40s. We’ve been here for centuries, we’ve contributed so much to this country and it’s time the rest of the country acknowledges this. Black History Month at Kent this year has been much better due to the passion and organisation of Kent Union BME Black Officer, Omolade Adedapo, the African-Caribbean society (ACS) and Student Success. I’m looking forward to an even better year, next year!

Emmys 2017 recap: women and minorities celebrated during politically-charged ceremony as Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale and SNL dominate

The 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, which took place this past Sunday, were unsurprisingly politically-charged. Stephen Colbert made several jokes at Trump’s expense during the monologue and it was a solid funny monologue. It was certainly an improvement from Jimmy Kimmel’s last year and it almost goes off without a hitch. That was until Colbert introduced a surprise guest — former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. In a reference to Melissa McCarthy’s popular SNL parody of him, Spicer wheeled a podium onstage and Colbert then set Spicer up for a gag about the Emmy ratings. It received a big reaction from the audience, notably Anna Chlumsky, an actor on the political satire Veep, who was caught on camera with her mouth agape in disbelief. However it weakens how seemingly progressive the Emmys were this year and highlights the hypocrisy of the industry.

The two big winners of the night were HBO’s Big Little Lies which took the award for best limited series and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale which won for best drama series, with both series winning five awards each in total that night. While The Night Of would have personally been my pick for best limited series, I have yet to see Big Little Lies and it’s good it won because it’s led by an ensemble cast of talented women. Similarly is the case for The Handmaid’s Tale which I have not seen either was an inspired choice considering its feminist politics and the parallels it has with the real world. However, it was a shame to see The Americans one of the most critically acclaimed series currently in the era of peak TV, snubbed again after it was finally recognised with a nod last year.

Emmy veteran, Veep, won for its six consecutive year and while I still enjoy the show, the latest two seasons have lacked the edge it once had especially considering how insane real world politics are. I personally felt Donald Glover’s Atlanta in its freshman season was far more deserving and was the best season of television I’ve seen in a long while. However Glover made history becoming the first African-American to win Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series and the second to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. It was one of many firsts as other minorities won and achieved milestones on the night. Sterling K. Brown won an Emmy for his Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, the first in 19 years when Andre Braugher won for Homicide. However, he was one of the only winners to be cut off by the music while Nicole Kidman and Elizabeth Moss who gave longer speeches were not. Riz Ahmed became the first Asian man and the first Muslim to win an acting award. Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe won Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, with Waithe becoming the first African-American woman to win that award. She gave one of the best speeches of the night in support of the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. community saying “the things that make us different, those are our superpowers.” As with the Oscars, let’s hope diversity is not simply a trend but change continues to happen. Until next year, Emmys.

Reflections on a summer

Summer’s nearly over. I’m writing this blog post a couple of hours before it becomes September in the UK. I’ve recovering from a very fun but exhausting past couple of days. I just thought I’d reflect on my summer this year, my experiences and things I’ve learned. Thinking back I haven’t done everything I wanted to this summer and it was a little disappointing but it was still a lot of fun and I’ve had some great times. I went to the Field Day festival in London in June. I had gone last year and I really enjoyed it so when I saw how good the line-up looked this year I had to go again. It was a really great festival, all the acts I saw performed well and delivered good sets. Flying Lotus was a highlight of the festival and one of the best acts I’ve ever seen live, I caught him a second time a week later at Parklife festival in Manchester. I also saw Forest Swords, Gaika, Nicolas Jaar, Run the Jewels and Sinkane. The only act I was gutted I missed was Death Grips but I got to see Sinkane instead who brought some good vibes. I’ve loved going to festivals since I went to my first festival in 2015 to see Kendrick Lamar headline. Sure they can be very crowded, dirty, expensive but I just love music and seeing live music never gets old for me. Being part of a crowd of like-minded fans all repeating the words and moshing is always fun to me. I was going back home the next day but I went to a house party my friend was throwing. I was exhausted from the journey back from the festival but I got off the coach and went straight to my mate’s house and socialised with friends, acquaintances and strangers. House parties were one of the best things about my second year of uni haha of course I really enjoy my degree but the house parties throughout the year were a lot of fun. I had made a lot of friends from being part of my uni’s hip-hop society since my first year and going to most of the events. A lot of these friends were in their third year and have now graduated this summer so that was the last I would see most of them for a while and some of them ever again so it was a bittersweet time. I stayed as long as I could which was until the sun came up at like 5am. I was probably the most sober person at the party because I had to be up in a few hours to be ready to pack up and my parents were coming to pick me up.

A week later I’m back home in Leeds. I took a few days to unpack all my luggage even though it wasn’t that much because I’m not a hoarder. After I had settled I spent most of the week at home before going to Manchester for another festival, Parklife. I saw Bonzai, Mura Masa, NAO, Sampha, Stormzy and FRANK FUCKING OCEAN!! Of course it was amazing finally seeing Frank Ocean, one of my favourite artists live, and trust me he was amazing. But all the other acts were really great as well. Bonzai I had never heard of before but she delivered a great set, NAO serenaded the entire crowd with her beautiful voice, Sampha was just absolutely incredible I literally cried and the moshpits at Stormzy were mad. After those two festivals I spent how I’ve spent most of this summer to be honest: catching up on TV, watching films and playing video-games. I also read more than I usually do. I was still applying for internships in those last couple of weeks of June but I wasn’t confident I would get anything. This continued for most of the summer lowering my self-esteem and making me feeling worthless until I decided to stop and just go onto my final year of uni. Oh and I also received my uni results which were disappointing. I did well but not quite as well I wanted to on a module I really enjoyed and totally bombed the other and got the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten in uni. Overall, across my modules I got a decent 2:1 which is 40% of my degree which I’m happy with and I can still graduate with a first if I do better this year.

Anyway July was a little better. I started off the month by going to a Kamasi Washington gig in Leeds. Kamasi Washington and his band was jaw-droppingly great, they really killed that shit. The crowd was loving it and they performed for a long set which was very impressive considering how difficult and exhausting it is to play jazz. I started to play pick-up basketball again with my long-time friend I’ve known since secondary school. I’m still not that good but I love playing basketball and the more I play and practise the better I’ll get. I strongly doubt I’ll be good enough to make the first team but might possibly make the second team if I keep practising with these last few weeks I have before to going back to uni. Since going to uni I’ve loved coming back to Leeds and seeing familiar faces again, hearing Leeds accents and enjoying the beautiful city that is Leeds. I consider Leeds to be my hometown even though I wasn’t born in Leeds and I don’t have a Leeds accent, at least not noticeable, my accent tends to get more Northern when I’m speaking to another Northerner. I was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria which I have no memory of because my parents moved to Lagos a few days later but I’m glad I was born in the same city as Fela Kuti and Wole Soyinka. I lived in Lagos for 9 years but those 9 years weren’t formative for me. I have some clear memories but not that many and I think I would struggle to adjust if I went to live there permanently. But I definitely intend to visit Nigeria especially Lagos in the next couple of years I’m sure some buried memories would resurface but I’m far too comfortable with British life right now even though there’s a lot of fuckery going on.

This summer wasn’t just a couple of festivals, a gig, a few games of pick-up basketball and staying in though. I did turn up at a few Nigerian parties. One of them was a church fellowship couple’s 25th anniversary party. As with most Nigerian parties I’ve been to it was pretty lit there were some drunk uncles misbehaving, afrobeats playing and people dancing. Another time, it was female friend’s 21st birthday party which was even more lit because it was a young people’s ting. The DJ who I knew played a lot of great afrobeats tracks. When the party ended at 10 I was a little surprised to be invited to an afterparty by the female friend. While I consider her more than an acquaintance we’re not exactly close or we don’t hang out so I wasn’t expecting her to invite me to an afterparty. It was one of the best nights of the summer because while I’ve known a lot of the people at the party for some years I wasn’t close with many people but I felt included. We were all first generation, some who were born in the UK and some who were born in Nigeria but grew up in the UK. We all shared similar childhoods, cultural experiences and had immigrant parents or assimilated in our early childhood or adolescent years. I felt happy to know that even though as a black person I’m a small minority in the UK I’m part of a large community. I had a similar feeling when I took my parents to see the play, Barbershop Chronicles which you can read my review of here.

Which brings me to August which ends in less than an hour. In August I decided I was done with the stress and headache of constant rejection and stopped applying for internships. I felt bad because one of my friends was in London working as an intern for Disney, an internship I applied but was rejected for, and I had other friends away in America on their year abroad. I feel better now that I’m going to my final year of university without having studied abroad or worked in the industry. I will make the most of my final year and will likely go on to a do a masters right after I’ve graduated. That way I will still get at least another year to see my friends who will be away this academic year. Last Saturday, I went to the Leeds West Indian Carnival for the first time and had a great time. I went with a friend and his brother and had the best time. It was great seeing so many beautiful black people, eating curry goat and jerk chicken for the first time, reggae, soca, dancehall and afrobeats music playing in the streets and watching local grime acts perform to huge crowds. I drank a lot of rum that day and at night we went out again to the after parties where the DJs played afrobeats and dancehall and of course I secured a few whines. It was funny seeing the ridiculous over-reaction from a few blogs over John Boyega catching a couple of whines at Carnival on his insta story. It was just making a big fuss out of a few dumb comments he received from people who don’t know about the culture. He actually replied to me which I was so gassed about.

And finally last night, I saw Vince Staples (finally!) and he was just incredible!! The supporting act was DJ Semtex who played banger after banger so that by the time Vince come on I was already tired but I immediately got my energy back up when the thumping bass pounded. He was a silhouette a lot of the time but I was often close enough to the stage that I could see his face clearly. The moshpits for a lot of the songs were intense, people got in a circle for a moshpit for songs that weren’t even hype. He performed so many of my favourite songs by him and the bass was so heavy. So yeah while it’s not been a particularly busy summer for me but I’ve definitely had a lot of fun and been more productive than I thought I would be. Now I’m tired of being at home and am so excited to go back to my final year of uni. Bring it on!

Tyler, The Creator: Flower Boy review – still with boyish charm Tyler matures on this beautiful poignant coming out record

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Less than a week after Tyler, The Creator announced his fourth studio album Flower Boy (promoted as Scum Fuck Flower Boy) it was leaked. Shortly after there was a lot of online discussion and speculation about his sexuality with many suggesting that he was gay and citing lyrics from the tracks “Foreword”, “Garden Shed”, and “I Ain’t Got Time!” This was equally met with immediate distrust and scorn, some from long-time fans dismissing these lyrics as simply provocative as his lyrics on previous albums and some LGBT and ally music critics condemning them as “queer-baiting” and a lie. I’m not going to speculate about Tyler’s sexuality in this review but it is clear from evidence over the years that Tyler, The Creator is definitely not straight. He has yet to address the rumours and I don’t think he should. Like Frank Ocean (who is featured twice on the album) who came out just over five years ago in a letter posted on Tumblr, it seems Tyler is refusing to label his sexuality. People still speculate over whether Frank Ocean is gay, bi and he’s often labelled as queer but Frank has never explicitly labelled himself as any of these. It is only clear that he isn’t straight but other than that unless he says what he identifies as we can only speculate. In the still on-going discussions and speculations about Tyler’s sexuality I rarely saw anyone consider if he might be bisexual or identify as something else or is still figuring things out. In an interview with Larry King three years ago Tyler said “I hate people who’s not comfortable with themselves” when King prompted “do you think we’ll ever have an openly gay rap artist?” Tyler responded “why does that shit matter, why do we care.” Three years later, if we’re to take the lyrics on this album at face value, and we should, these words are much more revealing. Flower Boy is by far Tyler, The Creator’s best project yet. It’s his most honest and earnest, beautifully self-produced with his most poignant and best written lyrics ever.

Before getting into the review it’s important to provide a little context on Tyler’s background. It has been seven years since L.A. rap collective, Odd Future, first broke out into mainstream popularity. Formed in 2007 by leader, Tyler, The Creator, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (abbreviated to OFWGKTA) were the most exciting thing in hip-hop and music at the time. They were a bunch of teenagers saying extremely vulgar, distasteful and controversial shit on record, jokingly advocating kids to “kill people, burn shit, fuck school” and inspiring suburban white kids and weirdo black kids across the States and the world. Although I wasn’t following blogs at the time, I was keenly aware of how demonised they were in the blogosphere and by the media. Odd Future were no Wu-Tang Clan, they weren’t a bunch of hardcore gangsters from the cold, gritty streets of New York City, they were a bunch of weirdo black skater kids from L.A. who had nothing else to do. I remember when the video for “Yonkers” came out, I was 14 in secondary school and I remember all of sudden hearing about this video where a black guy eats a cockroach. I think I took a while to watch it because as a shy, anxious kid it sounded scary to me but I did watch it a little later. Odd Future was’t big in my British secondary school but I remembered that soon after a few people in my year started wearing Odd Future merch and talking about Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. I’ve liked Tyler since then, I find him really funny, his music has been pretty good and he was really creative, producing most of his own music, cover art, fashion, TV shows and directing his own music videos. He was also half-Nigerian and as a full Nigerian I feel a kinship with anyone of Nigerian heritage 🇳🇬. But I preferred Earl Sweatshirt as a rapper, technically Earl was and still is better rapper, and Frank Ocean was a much better singer though I didn’t judge Tyler on his singing. I’ve liked all of Tyler’s music though Cherry Bomb was slightly disappointing but I hadn’t been blown away until Flower Boy really impressed me.

First thing to say is that Flower Boy is immaculately well-produced. It was entirely self-produced by Tyler and shows his growth as a producer and his influences including Pharell Williams who appears on the album and has appeared on his other albums and Kanye West who was featured on the Cherry Bomb track “Smuckers.”  The first track “Foreword” has a ticking sound throughout and features guest vocals from English singer, Rex Orange County. Tyler also shows his eclectic taste in music sampling “Spoon (Sonic Youth Remix)”, a remix by American noise/alternative-rock band Sonic Youth of the song “Spoon” by German krautrock band Can. The lyrics are also revealing: “shout out to the girls that I lead on / For occasional head and always keeping my bed warm /And trying their hardest to keep my head on straight” clearly suggests he isn’t straight I mean how ambiguous could those lines be. The dismissal of Tyler’s coming out is not surprising but has been really disgusting. It’s unsurprising because Tyler has made some homophobic remarks in the past and while those deserved to be criticised it is ridiculous that people cannot see how honest he’s being on this album. Tyler doesn’t (hardly) pitches his voice lower or use an alter ego on this album, he is wholly himself. He is just Tyler Okonma. While, those remarks in the past should still be condemned but they can be seen as a kind of self-hatred. The demonisation of Odd Future especially Tyler is really revealing because it represents the demonisation of black boys. Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice were two young black boys who were shot by police because they looked older than their age and were seen as more intimidating. Tyler, The Creator was a tall, lanky and edgy teenager with an overactive imagination and a deep voice but effectively harmless yet he was demonised by the press because he was black and therefore seen as intimidating. As Moonlight so poignantly showed, hyper-masculinity is often used as a protective armour by queer black boys and men.

Flower Boy is chock-full of beautiful guest singer spots. Frank Ocean croons on the chorus of “Where This Flower Blooms”, “I ride to California / These frog oval goggles.” Tyler also delivers some clever, important lines “Tell these black kids they could be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit, I’ll do it too / Look, I smell like Chanel” makes some references to Frank Ocean. Frank Ocean dyed his hair for the promo of Blonde, Frank has embraced who he is and helped other queer black kids be who they are and “Chanel” refers to a single Frank Ocean released earlier this year alluding to bisexuality or the fluidity of his masculinity and femininity. “See You Again” is a highlight in an album full of highlights. Tyler does some singing on the chorus and while it isn’t great it’s really endearing and Kali Uchis delivers some killer vocals. “Can I get a kiss? / And can you make it last forever? / I said I’m ’bout to go to war / And I don’t know if I’ma see you again.” The album is just full of so many beautiful catchy vocals which I haven’t been able to stop singing since. Despite being alternatively titled Scum Fuck Flower Boy the only indications we get of “scum fuck” are “Who Day Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time!” Tyler just revealed that he wanted to give ScHoolboy Q a verse on “Who Dat Boy” but he totally bodies this beat. The beat is such a banger it’s ridiculous, the horror movie synths, the build-up and the way Tyler and A$ap Rocky flow on this beat works so damn well.

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“I Ain’t Got Time!” is not as hard but the chorus is really infectious “I ain’t got time for these niggas / Better throw a watch at the boy” and the one of the lines which has had many speculating about his sexuality “Next line will have ’em like “Woah” / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.”

Throughout the album Tyler proves he is equally a great rapper and producer. His voice and flow perfectly match the jazzy, funky smooth beats extremely well. On “Pothole” he enlists Jaden Smith for the chorus and Smith is another carefree black boy who flouts conventional models of black masculinity – as weird as he might be. “Garden Shed” is a stand out track, perhaps the most revealing and one of the most beautifully produced tracks I’ve heard all year. It begins with some smooth guitar riffs, synths, jazzy drums and Estelle comes in with beautifully sung vocals (Estelle is low-key underrated). The title of the track likely serves a metaphor for the metaphorical closet non-straight people come out of. “Garden shed, garden shed, garden shed, garden shed / For the garden
That is where I was hidin’ / That was real love I was in / Ain’t no reason to pretend,” although these lyrics use imagery and are poetic it is pretty unambiguous what they could be referring to. More unambiguous lines: “Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase / Thought it’d be like the phrase; “poof,” gone / But, it’s still goin’ on.” What a way to do it and I applaud Tyler for his courage and am really happy for him. “Boredom” is a smooth jam about being bored and really speaks to me in this long boring summer where I expected to do much more. It features a lot of sweet guest vocals from Anna of the North, Corinne Bailey Rae & Rex Orange County. “911 / Mr. Lonely” is a two-part track, the first track is a smooth jazz-funk track with guest vocals from Steve Lacy, who was also featured on Kendrick Lamar’s “PRIDE.”, and Frank Ocean again.

Flower Boy never drops in quality throughout but it does drop seeds on “Droppin’ Seeds”, Lil Wayne’s verse in his idiosyncratic delivery sounds perfect on Tyler’s idiosyncratic jazzy production. “November” is a track with a really good drum loop and some bells, Tyler reminisces about the past using “November” as a metaphor for a time he misses “Take me back to November / Take me back to November / Hawaiian shirts in the winter, cold water, cold water.” The track switches up at one point before going right back into the drum loop and it just shows how well produced this entire album is. The only noticeable time Tyler does change his pitch on this album is on “Glitter” but for a totally different effect. He pitches his voice up and down on and it is a love song where he sings. I’ve listened to this album quite a few times and assumed it was another guest vocal but it appears not. The album ends with a funky instrumental which samples baby noises showcasing his producing chops. With this final track he doesn’t need to make a grand statement he’s already made them throughout the album. Flower Boy shows Tyler, The Creator fully maturing as an artist but still having his boyish charm. It is an extraordinarily well-produced album full of excellent guest vocals, honest, poignant lyrics and really gives the world its first true glimpse into Tyler Okonma. Indeed, a world of glitter and flowers.

 

Barber Shop Chronicles review – a razor-sharp exploration of black masculinity across the diaspora

I’m not a big fan of theatre. At least I wasn’t until I went to see Barber Shop Chronicles with my Nigerian parents at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds last Saturday. Before going to see this play, I had only ever been to see two other plays in my life. A production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was about 11 in primary school and a production of The Crucible during sixth form (both of these times at the West Yorkshire Playhouse). I enjoyed seeing these plays but I was always much more interested in films and television than theatre. I learnt about Barber Shop Chronicles after attending a poetry event called An Evening with an Immigrant while at university several months ago. It was a one-man spoken-word poetry show performed by Nigerian spoken-word artist, poet and playwright, Inua Ellams. I was very moved by his story: he was born in Jos, Nigeria but his family fled Nigeria to the UK when they faced persecution. He arrived in London when he was 12 years old but because of their uncertain legal immigration status his family moved to Ireland for 3 years before he could move back to London. Even today after 20 years of living in the UK and Ireland, Ellams still has to renew his passport every three years and Theresa May’s tory government is threatening to pass a bill which might make it even more difficult. If you want to read more about the ridiculous immigration system in the UK I would recommend Omolade’s blog post on her situation. I relate to both Ellams’ and Omolade’s situations in many ways but I’m so lucky in that I got my British citizenship in 2013 after seven years of living in the UK. In just under two weeks it will have been 11 years since I moved to the UK with my mum and my younger siblings to meet my dad and for us to start our new life in the UK. I will write more about my early experiences here in other blog posts but for now I want to talk about Barber Shop Chronicles!

The barber shop is the place of conversation and to convene for black men. I’ve experienced it all my life and it’s the one of the many fascinating things about black people that I’ve noticed. Saying that makes it sound like I’m not black when I am, I’m black and proud but black people are so multi-faceted and unique, we’re both envied and hated all over the world but let’s not get into that. To prepare to see this play I went for this ritual I had done many times before but this time I was made myself aware of the conversations going on around me. I walked into a black barber shop in a primarily South Asian and black working-class area of Leeds called Harehills. I didn’t have to wait long because the shop wasn’t very busy (it was a Thursday evening) and I sat down within 5 minutes of entering the shop.  I was called up to the chair and a barber asked me what I wanted, I said fade on the sides and back and take [pointing to my hair] this much off the top. As I was getting my hair cut a black woman walked into the shop, she seemed pissed off complaining to the owner about her daughter getting into trouble. The shop was a black male barber shop so she wasn’t there for a hairdo and it didn’t look like she was waiting for someone. The owner indulged the woman who may have had some personal issues then later a guy with West African accent I can’t place entered the shop and spoken in pidgin English to the owner who was West Indian. My hair cut didn’t last long and it was 🔥 so I paid the barber and walked out feeling great. Two days later I was watching Barber Shop Chronicles with my Nigerian parents and the characters in the South London barber shop, Three Kings are discussing the use and merits of Pidgin English. A Nigerian character says, hundreds of languages only one unites us: Pidgin. The fact that a conversation which is immediately familiar to many black people was being shown to a predominately white audience was amazing to me as was the fact myself and my parents could see ourselves on stage was even more amazing.

Barber Shop Chronicles was actually inspired by an experience the writer, Inua Ellams had visiting a black barber shop in a Chapeltown (a primarily black working-class area) in Leeds so my experience was likely similar to his. Written by Ellams and directed by Bijan Sheibani, Barber Shop Chronicles is a stellar production which weaves several stories taking place in barber shops across Africa – Lagos, Accra, Harare, Johannesburg, Kampala – and (south) London. It was hilarious, relatable, touching, well-written, well-acted, well-directed and produced, just an all round incredible production. Before the play started the actors pretended to cut members’ of the audience’s hair, went around chatting to audience members while a DJ played afrobeats and afro bashment music. They all seemlessly transitioned into the beginning of the play as they crowded around to watch a football game. Each scene and location transitioned perfectly into another. The actors chanted, sung and danced each time the play transitioned into a new location. The set design was also extremely well done, authentic and strangely familiar.  When the actors transitioned from the South London barber shop to one in Lagos, I was transposed into forgotten childhood memories. My memories of Nigeria from birth until I moved when I was 9 are few, I have a few vivid ones such as my dad telling me he was moving to the UK when I was 7 but I can’t really sketch out a lot from my early childhood in Nigeria. That scene in Lagos triggered some of those repressed memories, I tried to vaguely remember my parents taking me to barber shops in Lagos and the set design seemed somewhat familiar. The dialogue was hilarious and authentic and the actors did an incredible job speaking a mixture of London English, various Pidgin English languages and other native languages such as Yoruba and Twi. It was really great to see my parents laugh and smile knowingly at the jokes about Nigeria and the use of Yoruba.

Although, the audience I saw it in was mostly white it was great to see a decent amount of other black people there as well especially considering Leeds is not nearly as diverse as London. The audience laughed throughout the play and I was so glad to see how much other black people enjoyed. I think we should support each other as much as we can especially in the arts. As well as being funny, Barber Shop Chronicles was really touching. It explored many difficult topics that aren’t discussed as much in black communities such as sexuality, identity and mental health. It showed black masculinity in all its complexities and different beautiful forms across different generations. Everyone involved did an absolutely amazing job. Barber Shop Chronicles is being performed for another run at the National Theatre from 29th of November 2017 to the 9th of January 2018. It is extremely popular so be sure to book tickets soon! https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/barber-shop-chronicles-performances. Also check out Inua Ellams’ website: inuaellams.com.

 

JAY-Z: 4:44 review – Hov swaps hubris for humility and vulnerability on this brilliant confessional record

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I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of JAY-Z. One of the biggest reasons for this is that his music is currently only available online on TIDAL and for purchase on the iTunes store and my primary way of listening to music is streaming on Spotify. However, I’ve listened to JAY-Z songs over the years I’ve been listening to hip-hop because well he’s JAY-Z. He’s one of the most well-known figures not just in hip-hop but in pop culture in general. I mean even my dad who doesn’t listen to much music used to listen to JAY-Z. He is one of the best-selling musicians of all time and Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album and The Blueprint are regarded as among the best hip-hop albums ever. I’ve listened to songs from all three albums but I doubt I’ve listened to any of them in full. I loved his collaboration album with Kanye West, Watch the Throne, in 2011, I think this was the year I started to listening to music properly and not just watching music videos on MTV. So in 2013 when Magna Carta Holy Grail was released I was excited, I remember downloading the leak and then listening a couple of times and not again. It was not a bad album, just utterly mediocre and not what I expected from a legend such as JAY-Z. When I heard the rumours that JAY-Z was working on a new album a couple of months ago I anticipated it I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised but ready to be disappointed again. I can confidently say that 4:44 did not disappoint.

A lot has been made of 4:44. Some have seen it as a response to Beyoncé’s seminal album Lemonade which was released last year and in which she strongly implied that Jay-Z had cheated on her.  Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s relationship has been in the public eye since at least 2003 when Beyoncé released her debut solo single “Crazy in Love.” Many have also interpreted Solange’s infamous attack against JAY-Z in an elevator in 2014 as a response to his cheating. All of this has been speculation (though it seemed more than likely) until JAY-Z confirmed he did cheat on Beyoncé on the title track “4:44.” “4:44” begins with a sample of “Late Nights & Heartbreak” by Hannah Williams & The Affirmations. Williams sings “do I find it so hard / when I know in my heart / I’m letting you down every day”  reflecting how JAY-Z feels about cheating and letting down his wife and kids. JAY-Z begins the first verse with the line “Look, I apologize, often womanize /
took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes” clearly admitting his infidelity and taking his children for granted. The sample forms the chorus and No I.D.’s, who produced the entire album, production is simply amazing. The song and the entire album manages to use old soul samples while sounding fresh, modern and different. And JAY-Z’s flow on this song doesn’t miss a beat, he has a distinct voice which sounds effortless on the beat. It’s almost like he’s just talking or confessing but paired with the production it’s extremely effective. JAY-Z is brutally honest and vulnerable on the song “my heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes / and the mask goes away / and Santa Claus is fake.” With these lines JAY-Z likens himself to Santa Claus, a fictional figure which parents tell their children exists but are really just themselves pretending.

Some critics and people have described 4:44 as the first grown rap album and others have made comparisons to Nas’ 2012 album Life Is Good. It’s easy to see why. Hip-hop is still a relatively young major genre unlike rock which has been around since the 50s and 60s, hip-hop came around in the late 70s and did not become popular or commercial until the late 80s and early 90s. Therefore, a lot of well known rappers in the “golden age”, many of whom started young, are only in their 40s such as Nas, DMX, Ice Cube, Eminem and the recently deceased Prodigy. Biggie and Tupac, the martyrs of hip-hop, would only be 45 and 46 respectively today. At 47, JAY-Z is definitely considered an “old head.” The debate about the state of hip-hop has been going on for a while now. Nas made an album called Hip Hop is Dead in 2006. In 2017, the truth is hip-hop is a better place than it has ever been. In a recent study by Nielsen, hip-hop/R&B combined was the most consumed genre in the United States for the first time ever. Hip-hop shapes pop culture more than any other genre today and JAY-Z has been a big part of its cultural status. JAY-Z started out as a drug dealer and is now worth $810 million just behind P Diddy as the second-richest hip hop artist. He’s a businessman and is friends with the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. JAY-Z has inspired a lot of rappers including the current most important rapper Kendrick Lamar and although his influence has gone unnoticed in recent years it’s still huge and he proves it on this album. On “Family Feud” for example, JAY-Z examines his status and role as a father in his family and as a father figure in hip-hop. The track is backed by beautiful Beyoncé vocals and great production from No I.D. He sends shots but in a friendly way with the lines “all this old talk left me confused / you’d rather be old rich me or new you?” referencing the “old head” debate as well as bragging in his typical Hov persona. As well as that, the line “and old niggas, y’all stop actin’ brand new / like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh” commenting on his contemporaries judging young rappers such as Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert for their unique fashion choices whilst ignoring the fact the Tupac and other rappers also dressed in a not so hyper-masculine way.

On the brilliant album opener, “Kill Jay-Z”, JAY-Z talks about killing his ego. He says “fuck JAY-Z, I mean, you shot your own brother / how can we know if we can trust JAY-Z?” referring to the incident when he was 12 when he shot his crack-addicted brother. By talking about killing his ego JAY-Z shows that he is self-aware of the danger of being too egotistical, he expresses his doubt and vulnerability by rapping in the third person and talking about the things he’s done. And his wordplay and imagery is extremely sharp, for example the lines “let go your ego over your right shoulder / your left is sayin’, “Finish your breakfast!” / you egged Solange on” refers to his song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, his inner conscience, the Eggo waffle brand and the term “egged on”. “The Story of O.J.” is a highlight on the album. The production is soulful and No I.D. brilliantly reworks a sample of Nina Simone singing “Four Women” which was about the effects of slavery on black women. Nina Simone sings “Skin is, skin, is / Skin black, my skin is black / my, black, my skin is yellow” which is repeated throughout the song. JAY-Z talks about a lot of different issues such as slavery, financial responsibility, black ownership, capitalism and commercialism on this single track. The chorus “light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga / rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga / still nigga, still nigga” is straightforward and effective in highlighting the sad truth that no matter your status, your wealth, your position if you’re black you’re still just a “nigga” in America. Despite his wealth and status JAY-Z will be treated as inferior by a racist and by the racist institutions that are still upheld in America he’s still a nigga. The interlude before the first verse perfectly sums it in one sarcastic line “O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” followed by a long pause then “…okay.”

JAY-Z listening to this song then hearing that O.J. will be released from parole later this year.

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Another highlight is the delightful “Smile” which has possibly my favourite beat on the entire album and a sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” He talks about his mother coming out as a lesbian and how he feels about that: “mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian.” The song ends with monologue from his mother, Gloria Carter, “living in the shadow / can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?” It is an important revelation because homosexuality and other LGBT identities are topics which aren’t talked about as much in black communities especially among the older generation. As well as feature spots from his mother and wife, the two most important black women in his life, JAY-Z also gets help from Frank Ocean on the chorus of “Caught Their Eyes” and Damian Marley on “Bam.” “Bam” also samples “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy which Kanye West, close friend and now possible rival, also sampled on “Famous” on The Life of Pablo. On “Moonlight” JAY-Z references the snafu at this year’s Academy Awards when La La Land was falsely announced as the best winner before Moonlight was correctly identified as the true winner: “Y’all stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gon’ lose.” It was a bittersweet moment and served as a metaphor for black joy overcoming impossible obstacles but still not allowed to express happiness fully. At 37 minutes and 10 tracks, 4:44 is an album full of highlights. There isn’t a single bad track on it. JAY-Z has a great flow and wordplay throughout the album, the production is incredibly soulful, the vocals match the beats perfectly and the lyrics are well-written exploring a wide variety of issues which should be discussed more often. It’s yet another example of black masculinity being expressed through vulnerability and I hope this becomes the norm. By killing his ego JAY-Z has produced a brutally honest and vulnerable record, his status and legacy still intact.

 

 

Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory review – keen observations on the perceptions of artists over experimental electronic production

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Vince Staples is one of the most talented and fascinating figures in hip-hop today. Over the past three years, Staples has been prolific releasing a new project every single year. The brilliant Hell Can Wait EP in 2014, his Def Jam debut, his debut album Summertime ’06 in 2015 and last year summer’s Prima Donna EP which was accompanied by a 10-minute long short film. All three projects were outstanding, polished and focused with great production and Staples’ breathless flow as he documented the hellish environment he grew up in North Long Beach, Los Angeles as a former Crip member. In three short years, he has always been in the conversation around hip-hop culture as a prominent subject for blogs and magazines who want his opinion on everything. Last year, he made dozens of short videos in which he shared his opinion on anything and everything. He did so many of these videos that I couldn’t imagine him enjoying them but I enjoyed his clever wit and watched every single one of these I could find. It’s no surprise why everyone wants his opinion on things, he is a very intelligent, funny and quick-witted individual with obscure pop culture references all delivered in a dead-pan tone that you can never tell if he’s being serious or tongue-in-cheek. Over the past few months Staples began to appear as a feature on several electronic and EDM tracks collaborating with artists such as Flume, Clams Casino and GTA. He also appeared on the track “Ascension”, the first track from the latest Gorillaz album, Humanz. It shouldn’t have been that much of surprise then that Big Fish Theory is full of experimental electronic production.

Electronic music is such a broad genre that it would be foolish to call the production on Big Fish Theory simply “electronic”. There are so many sub-genres many I’ve never heard of or listened to. But I am of course familiar with techno, house and UK garage which are some of the genres I can most identify on this album. Techno is the most prominent influence on the album specifically Detroit Techno and I noticed some House influence in the pop hooks but I can’t tell the difference between different sub-genres of House so you’ll have to forgive my ignorance. UK garage is the most interesting sound to me though because it’s the last thing I would have imagined Vince Staples rapping on but there it is on the first track on the album “Crabs in a Bucket.”

“Crabs in a Bucket” builds up with an eerie atmosphere, electronic synths and some high-pitched vocals. Staples’ vocals come in and there’s thumping bass as Staples frantically raps in his effortless flow. The bass gradually becomes more warped and frenetic and Kilo Kish sings in her sweet voice on the outro. If you’re not familiar with UK garage, it’s a genre of electronic music originating in the early 90s in the UK which often features a distinctive 4/4 percussive rhythm and pitch-shifted vocal samples. If you’re curious enough to listen to any though you might not see the influence on “Crabs in a Bucket” but if you listen to Burial it will be crystal clear. Burial’s version of UK garage in the 2000s was much darker than that it’s 90s predecessor it’s often called “future garage.” Co-produced by Zack Sekoff, who produced four tracks on the album, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, it’s a very good homage to the genre which developed grime. Although, Big Fish Theory, is much less lyrical than Summertime ’06 and also much shorter at only 36 minutes, Staples comes through with great flow and insightful lyrics. “Crabs in a Bucket” is an idiom which refers to an individualistic mentality which ensures that no one succeeds. The lines “need white women at the shows unconscious / If not that then topless, earned all this” possibly refers to hyper-masculinity in hip-hop and juxtaposes the white women who consume hip-hop which is mostly made by black men and the long history of white women’s festishation of black men. The lines “nails in the black man’s hands and feet / put him on a cross so we put him on a chain” suggests Staples is comparing the mass incarceration of black men to the crucifixion of Christ.

The second track on the album is “Big Fish” which was released as the second single. It’s a bass heavy club-banger produced by Christian Rich (Kehinde and Taiwo Hassan) featuring a catchy chorus from Juicy J. It’s the one of the most accessible tracks on the album and could easily be on the radio unlike most of the tracks on the album. On this song Staples reflects on his modest success financially and how he’s made it out of the dire situation he was in: “it’s funny I was going crazy not too long ago.” Watch any interview with Vince Staples and you’ll know that he cares about being financially stable because money is the most important thing where he comes from and in most places in the world and it can get you out of where you come from where someone like Vince might been killed by another black person or the police. “Alyssa Interlude” samples an Amy Winehouse interview. Staples was influenced by the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy making Prima Donna, he saw how badly she was treated by the press and her family when she became famous. The inclusion of the sample points to the perception of artists but on the outro Staples sings “Raindrops on my windowsill / longing for your nature’s feel” reminiscing about someone he once knew and loved, this is overlayed with a beautiful Temptations sample. Produced by GTA, “Love Can Be…” is such a catchy track. Damon Albarn sings on the intro and Kilo Kish’s vocals sound purposeful robotic and her flow is so smooth. Staples’ flow is reliably smooth but his cadence is so quirky perhaps mimicking Kendrick Lamar’s on “Alright” “tell the world I want my Uchies / dodge the groupies, them don’t move me.” Also the Ray J vocals are an inspired choice (interesting parallel Burial also sampled Ray J on his track “Archangel”).

“745” is a certified banger produced by Jimmy Edgar, it features heavy bass and rattling hi-hats. The lines “All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs / All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss / All my life I want waves at my front door” are again reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” It is followed by “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium” an interlude which features Vince singing mournful, the track ends with a gunshot transitioning into the highlight of the album “Yeah Right” (more parallels to Kendrick Lamar – “BLOOD.” ends with gunshot transitioning seamlessly into the banger “DNA.”). Yeah Right features KENDRICK FUCKING LAMAR. There are many comparisons to be made between Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar. They’re two of the most critically acclaimed rappers today, they’re both from poor crime-ridden neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and they’re both super fucking talented. “Yeah Right” is a dream come true, two of my favourite rappers currently (Kendrick Lamar is a GOAT easily but Staples is not quite a GOAT yet but he’s a strong contender)  collaborating for the first time on a banger of a track. The last time this happened was…well last year – Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on “Really Doe.” But boy does this deliver. The hook by Staples is so catchy repeating “boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right” over and over again.

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He talks about materialism in hip-hop “Is your house big? Is your car nice? / Is your girl fine? Fuck her all night?” then there’s a bridge by Kućka until Kendrick comes in and takes over the track it’s his now. And he absolutely snaps on his verse, switching up his flow and cadence multiple times. “Popular demand, I understand my name is only for conversation” he knows he’s great and he proves it again and again. Co-produced by SOPHIE, a PC music collaborator and Flume it’s a highlight on an album full of highlights.

“Homage” has some of the craziest production on an album full of insanely good experimental electronic production. Staples puts on a braggadocios persona and pays homage to Rick Ross on the chorus “these niggas won’t hold me back” and to A$ap Ferg on the last verse “I’m on a new level.” Also on the last verse Staples says “I’m out in Bristol, bro from the ends got a pistol” I know Staples has listened to Portishead (a trip-hop group from Bristol) and I’ve never heard an American rapper use the word “ends” in this way so perhaps Staples has picked up some UK slang and is paying homage to it or maybe it just rhymes. “SAMO”‘s title pays homage to the iconic black American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat who like Amy Winehouse died at the “cursed” age of 27 and was also an artist who was pimped and treated poorly. The word “SAMO” means same old shit alluding to the mundane nihilistic gang lifestyle he once lived. Party People uses the old trick of having an upbeat instrumental but with deceptively depressing lyrics. The chorus is lighthearted “Party people, yeah / Party people I like to see you dance” and I can easily hear this at a early morning uni student rave but the rest of the lyrics are quite depressing highlighted by the line “how I’m supposed to have a good time / when death and destruction’s all I see?”.

The album concludes with “Bagbak” and “Rain Come Down.” “Bagbak” was the first single released in promotion of the album, the beat produced by Ray Brady sounds the most like what I think Detroit techno sounds like though I’m not very familiar with the genre. It’s futuristic but industrial and on this track Staples delivers his most explicit political lyrics on the album with lines like “prison system broken, racial war commotion / until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’ / we need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office.” In an interview with LA Weekly Staples said “we making future music. It’s Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism” he later said he was trolling telling white people about black culture but I think he’s right. This is afro-futurism at least Staples’ interpretation of afro-futurism whether he intended to or not. He took the sounds of Detroit and other metropolitan cities and crafted a unique forward-thinking vision of the world we’re living in. The final track “Rain Come Down” is slightly more subtly political “I’m the blood on the leaves, I’m the nose on the Sphinx / Where I’m from we don’t go to police” referring to the issue of police brutality disproportionately affecting African-Americans. The track also features some vocals from Ty Dolla $ign on the chorus. Big Fish Theory is a short but powerful album featuring unique experimental electronic production, witty and insightful lyrics, minimal but effective features and a very strong concept. It joins Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and Sampha’s Process as three great albums from three great black artists which explore to some extent how black men deal with pressure and anxiety.

‘Moonlight’ Review – beautifully poetic meditation on identity and self-love

This review contains minor spoilers. [This review was originally published elsewhere on March 6, 2017]

When I first saw the trailer for Moonlight many months ago last year I became entirely obsessed with it and desperately wanted to see the film. Throughout the months leading up to the UK release of the film I kept rewatching the trailer, it captivated me so much and I just knew the film would be unlike anything I had ever seen before. So when I first saw Moonlight three weeks ago I had very high expectations but I was at ease the moment the film began with Boris Gardiner’s 1973 reggae classic “Every Nigger is a Star”, also sampled on “Wesley’s Theory”, the opening track to Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. By the time the credits started rolling I was overwhelmed with emotions, my heart was beating very fast; it was the best cinematic experience I’ve ever had and will likely ever have. I was lucky enough to attend a Q & A after the film with some of the cast and crew, Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Naomie Harris, Adele Romanski and James Laxton. I was grateful and in total awe of the talent that made such an artistic masterpiece.

This review comes three weeks after seeing the film because I’ve needed time to gather my thoughts on the film though I love it there’s a lot to talk about and there are many things I’m still trying to unpack. I have now seen Moonlight a second time and on a second viewing it was just as emotionally impactful as the first. This review also comes a full week after Moonlight won three Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards including Best Picture which it absolutely deserves. The press has already extensively covered the snafu which occurred just a week ago so I won’t go into it but the controversy surrounding the false announcement of La La Land as the winner before correctly giving the award to Moonlight has a particular resonance. Moonlight’s historic win is so important, it’s the first all-black cast and LGBT film to win Best Picture and the lowest budget film to win the award. It’s an incredible feat and I really hope its win is not overshadowed by the biggest mistake in the Academy’s history but hey we black people are used to having our struggles ignored and our victories undermined.

Moonlight is only the second feature film from 37 year-old director, Barry Jenkins. His first feature film was the delightful mumblecore romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy (2008) which was like a black Before Sunrise about two young black San Franciscans after a one night stand. It was a very small indie film made on a budget $15,000 practically peanuts compared to Moonlight’s still tiny $1.5 million. While it was a solid debut, it was still surprising that Jenkins could make a film like Moonlight 8 years later. It’s the kind of film that many will never achieve in their entire careers, it’s the film of a lifetime. Moonlight was adapted by Jenkins from a previously unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney’s play is a largely autobiographical story about a young black boy named Chiron growing up in Liberty City, Miami as he struggles with his sexuality and his identity. Although straight, Jenkins also grew up in the same neighbourhood as McCraney, went to the some of the same schools and also had a crack-addicted mother though the two never met growing up. It is told co-currently in three stages of his life: as a small pre-pubescent boy, as a lanky teenager and finally as a hyper-masculine young adult. Jenkins’ screenplay changes the complicated structure of the play to translate it to film instead using a triptych structure, the narrative is told in three chapters named after the nicknames Chiron is given at different times in his life: “i. Little”, “ii. Chiron” and “iii. Black.” Drawing influence from foreign directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien whose film Three Times was an influence on the narrative structure, Claire Denis and Wong Kar-wai, Moonlight is an art film. As a lover of cinema and especially art cinema I was delighted to hear Barry Jenkins mention these filmmakers as influences especially Wong Kar-wai. There isn’t a whole lot of black cinema and black art films are even rarer so I was so happy to see another.

Moonlight also looks like an art film. The film opens with Afro-Cuban drug dealer, Juan (played brilliantly by Mahershala Ali who won best supporting actor for the role), pulling up in a classic late 80s Chevrolet. He is sporting a durag, gold watch and casual attire. At 6′ 2″ and with a deep smooth voice, Ali is a commanding screen presence. Laxton’s camera circles a drug addict and corner boy Juan approaches, constantly in motion it’s somewhat disorientating. The film is shot in CinemaScope and colour graded with a high contrast giving it a sharp distinct look different from the documentary-style look typical of social realist dramas. Running past Juan is a Chiron (Alex Hibbert) chased by bullies who yell homophobic slurs at him. The camera cuts to Chiron running through a field, the contrast of his dark brown skin, blue backpack and green grass is vivid as he runs from the bullies to hide in an abandoned corner. Despite its sensitive subject matter, Moonlight is not a social realist drama nor is it intended to be. It is a beautifully poetic meditation on identity and self-love. On paper, it appears it could be social realist drama, it’s set in a poor neighbourhood, there’s a drug dealer, a cracked addicted mother, an absent father and a bullied young black boy. But as Barry Jenkins has said stereotypes come from the outside so these are not stereotypes these are just people who really exist and are just as human and deserving to have their stories told truthfully. Moonlight doesn’t fetishise the struggle of living poor, black or gay it simply tells a personal but very relatable story. And because Moonlight is so gorgeously shot does not make it any less realistic in fact it makes it more realistic because it depicts the true beauty of the location and the people. Set and shot in Liberty City, Miami it’s an area of Miami which is not often depicted on screen but Moonlight shows how naturally beautiful the location is despite the struggle people live in.

One of the most breath-taking scenes in the film is where Juan takes Chiron swimming. It is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen. Nicholas Brittel’s classical score is incredibly moving, James Laxton’s camera bobs in the water in a close-up of Chiron swimming. Juan holds Chiron head just above the water symbolising a baptism. This scene is particularly poignant because of the stereotype of black people not being able to swim. This is some truth to this stereotype, 70% of African-American children surveyed said they had no or low ability to swim. There is a long history behind it, African slaves were brought over on slave ships and many, many drowned so naturally there is an instinctive fear of drowning passed down through generations. Water represents so much in fiction: escape, freedom, sustenance, spirit. It is incredibly touching to see two beautiful black bodies being free in the water as Juan says “in the middle of the world.” After swimming, Juan talks honestly to Chiron and the dialogue is so incredibly well written that it’s some of the most uplifting lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s also the central message of the film as Juan says “at some point you gotta to decide for yourself who you want to be.” Although the film explores Chiron trying to understand his sexuality it’s more about Chiron trying to figure out who he is and tragically it’s not until the end of the film after he has radically transformed himself in the image of Juan that he begins to learn who he is. Juan is a father figure to Chiron whose real father is absent and Juan’s presence is missed when he disappears after the first chapter. Mahershala Ali’s performance is so subtle but incredibly powerful I felt so much love for a drug dealer because he wasn’t a stereotype he was a complex human character with emotions.

The second chapter follows an older Chiron (played with nervous energy by Ashton Sanders), as a lanky, awkward teenager. Ashton Sanders’ performance is perhaps the best of the three actors who play Chiron. The way he carries his body is so fragile and guarded, his shoulders are constantly hunched. It’s in this second act that we see Chiron’s relationship with his childhood friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) develop. Kevin appears to be comfortable with his sexuality and know who he is and in some ways he is further along his journey of self-discovery than Chiron but he doesn’t fully know who he is either. This all comes to a head in a pivotal scene. Chiron goes to the beach, sitting on the sand he feels the cool night breeze on his body. When Kevin comes to join him, they talk to each other and smoke a blunt. The dialogue is so natural and well written that it feels like a conversation taken directly from real life. A particular line however hits me hard, Chiron says “I cry so much sometimes I feel like imma just turn to drops.” I would call myself a sensitive person and as a teenager sometimes I felt so lonely I would just cry. To see black boys say this on screen is important because a new generation of black boys growing up can see that it’s okay to cry and be sensitive and express your emotions. Frank Ocean released an album last year called Blonde accompanied by a magazine titled Boys Don’t Cry, that phrase is something that has been said to all men of different races and backgrounds. However with black men in particular, it holds so much weight because we are expected to be hyper-masculine but at the same time we can’t be too intimidating or we’re seen as a threat to society. Although they had nothing to do with each other (though Barry Jenkins was listening to a chopped and screwed version of Blonde while writing it) Moonlight and Blonde explores similar topics such as black masculinity and identity and it’s no surprise a line in a song on Blonde goes “pretty fucking, underneath moonlight now.” I felt happy to see Chiron and Kevin share an intimate moment and allow themselves to be vulnerable because black men aren’t often allowed to be.

The final chapter shows who the world has forced the Chiron to become. Played with a quiet melancholy by Trevante Rhodes, Chiron has built himself in the image of Juan, his armour is his physically strong body, he wears gold fronts on his teeth and carries himself in what he thinks he has to be not who he really is. So when we see Chiron receive a call from Kevin (André Holland) we see who he really is. Kevin reminds him of his past which he has tried to forget but can never truly forget because it’s part of who he is. When Chiron meets up with Kevin at the restaurant he works at, we see the two men struggling to say what they really want to say or how they really feel. Kevin cooks a chef’s special for Chiron and it’s shot with so much love and care. The dialogue as the two men enjoy each other’s company is delightful, you can feel the onscreen chemistry between the actors. When they’re in the car on their way back to Kevin’s place, Kevin asks Chiron “who is you?” This question is the central message of the film to ask ourselves who we really are and to love ourselves. Chiron deflects the question by turning up the car speakers blasting a beautiful chopped and screwed version of Jidenna’s “Classic Man.” Chiron doesn’t know who he is yet. In the quiet final moments of the film, two black men drink tea together. That’s something that’s never been seen before on screen but needs to be seen. Chiron admits that Kevin is the only man that’s ever touched him not just that but the only person. This lines hit hard because it shows how Chiron has not allowed himself to be loved. But there’s hope, in the final scene we see Chiron held by Kevin, he’s finally allowing himself to be loved and we should all do the same.

Sampha: Process review – finally in the spotlight an introverted artist bears his soul on his fears and anxieties

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I’ve been a fan of Sampha since 2013 when I first heard him featured on most tracks on SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album. I was absolutely captivated by his soulful singing voice, it was one of the most beautiful voices I had ever heard. But I didn’t know who Sampha was. For some time I assumed he was behind the SBTRKT project before discovering it was Aaron Jerome. From 2013 until this year I heard Sampha featured on a number of tracks including Drake’s “Too Much” (which he sampled from a Sampha song from his 2013 EP Dual), Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.” If I had bothered to look into his music I wouldn’t have found much though, before Process, his debut album, Sampha had only released two solo projects: 2010’s Sundanza and 2013’s DualSundanza is hard to find because it’s not on any digital platforms and Dual is a brief 17 minute EP. Still had I discovered Dual earlier it could have tided me over while I awaited the debut album of an artist I loved but didn’t really know. This is partly due to Sampha himself. Sampha Sissay was born in Morden, South London to Sierra Leonean parents who came to the United Kingdom in the 1980s. His introduction to music came from learning to play on the piano at his parents’ home in Morden and listening to records given to him by his older siblings. In the few video interviews there are of Sampha he comes across as a very quiet, shy introverted person but someone who is a very talented and cares a lot about music. As someone who was very shy but has now broken out of their shell and is still a generally reserved and introverted person I relate to Sampha a lot. Sampha doesn’t give everything about himself away on Process but he’s brutally honest and it’s so beautiful but absolutely heart-wrenching at times.

Process begins with “Plastic 100°C”, produced by Rodaidh McDonald and Sampha. Process is full of sounds I’ve never heard before and the opening track introduces this musical palette to the listener. The track begins with a sample of Neil Armstrong saying “I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the sun.” This line conveys the feeling that Sampha feels by releasing this album he’s been in the background for so long but now he’s taking a huge step by putting himself in the spotlight but not quite fully plunging into it. Sampha’s voice is soft yet intense you can feel his desperation but he’s almost reluctant to share it. The chorus “it’s so hot I’ve been melting out here / I’m made out of plastic out here” is just the one of many examples of evocative imagery Sampha will use on this album to describe the feeling of anxiety so perfectly. Here he describes the pressure and anxiety of this stage in his career as hot and that he’s melting because he’s made of out plastic not strong enough to withstand the heat of the music industry and fame. The line “oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah, I didn’t really know what that lump was, my luck” captures this anxiety perfectly by referring to a lump. The lump is both metaphorical and physical. You might feel the sensation of a lump in your throat if you’re nervous as well that the line also refers to when Sampha did actually discover a lump in his throat in 2011, a physical manifestation of his anxiety. Sampha’s father passed away when Sampha was 9 years old, his brother also suffered a severe stroke and then his mother, after having been diagnosed with cancer in 2010, died in 2015. This fear of illness and death is something I relate to even though it hasn’t affected me or anyone close to me personally I struggle with it everyday. I fear every day that either of my parents will fall ill or die and I can’t imagine what I would do and or how I would cope. I fear that something bad will happen to any of my siblings and I fear that I could die at any time. It’s a horrible feeling one that I have to distract myself with things so I don’t dwell on it but it’s one that never goes away and often resurfaces late at night and when I’m away from home.

I know grief is an inevitable feeling and I will eventually lose someone close to me and that’s a very frightening thought. But through Sampha coping and processing his grief on Process I know this album will help me cope and process my grief in the future. The album’s most emotional moment comes at “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” It’s a stripped back piano ballad as Sampha reflects on his musical upbringing and the memory of his recently deceased mother. It’s very very emotionally affecting I almost tear up every time I listen to it. The line “no one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home / You would show me I had something some people call a soul” ugh 😭. The song “Blood on Me” is a heart-racing frantic “banger” as Sampha describes the feelings of fear and anxiety as things which chase and haunt him: “I swear they smell the blood on me
I hear them coming for me.” His voice sounds more desperate than it did on “Plastic 100°C”, the breathing sounds make you imagine he’s literally running away from his fears and anxieties on the song. The production on this song is incredible, the tinny drums and the heavy bass as the song builds and builds until it climaxes. The song works incredibly well when you’re actually running if you’re feeling stressed out run with this song and imagine you’re escaping from your fears and anxieties it feels very cathartic. “Kora Sings” also has incredible production featuring a kora, a West African instrument, it has a very unique sound and combined with the drums on the song, it’s simply beautiful. The entire album is indescribably beautiful. The production, the use of percussion, the piano, it’s extremely well produced.  Another example is “Take Me Inside” which starts off as another low-key ballad as Sampha’s soft voice croons away but then in come the electronic sounds and synthesisers as which build very quickly and then fade away.

“Reverse Faults” like “Blood on Me” is another banger. It feels weird to call any song on this album a banger because the lyrics are so very personal, emotional and reflective but songs like the two aforementioned just have an incredible breakdown and lyrics you want to scream out loud. The song goes from a mellow synthy instrumental into a more explosive electronic instrumental and Sampha sings “took the brake pads out the car and I flew” the lyrics just evoke the feeling of freedom. “Under” is another song which has beautifully evocative imagery to describe the feelings Sampha is experiencing “I’m somewhere in open sea yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah I’m gasping for air.” The production on this song to me sounds like the most like a James Blake song, the drums and bass have the feel of a James Blake song but the vocal performance is more expressive than any James Blake song. The vocal performances throughout this album are just incredibly expressive Sampha has so much range and so much emotion is felt in the way he sings the lyrics. “Timmy’s Prayer” and “Incomplete Kisses” are no exception. On “Timmy’s Prayer” Sampha cries out “I wish that I listened when I was in prison now I’m just a visitor I came to the gates but you turned me away you asked me what am I waiting for
I’m waiting ’cause I fucked up, ooh” here Sampha describes how he’s lost meaning in his life now both of his parents are gone and he’s questioning himself and God. Co-written by Kanye West, “Timmy’s Prayer” contains the same emotional honesty of Kanye at his best and that line is the one time Sampha swears on the album showing just how desperate he’s gotten. “Incomplete Kisses” is a melancholic, beautiful track with a piano and electronic sounds, the song builds up to an emotional climax which makes you reminisce about those moments where things were left unrealised. The final song “What Shouldn’t I Be?” is perhaps the most lowkey song on the album as Sampha quietly reflects on his past connections, his home, his family he concludes the album by saying “It’s not all about me (What shouldn’t I be?).” It’s an ambivalent end but one that suggests though he’s looking back and reconnecting with people in his life but he also has a better sense of himself as well. I’m so glad that Sampha has decided to put himself out there more because Process is a really impressive debut album and my second favourite album of the year so far. Like DAMN., my favourite album of the year so far, Process shows a black man who is not afraid to show that he’s vulnerable and that he also fears and has anxieties like everyone. I hope more artists like Sampha and Kendrick Lamar continue to do the same.