A Headphone Masterpiece

Image courtesy of Lou Cambridge
Following the debut solo release of Sunny & Gabe’s Sunny Moonshine, Popscure writer Jerome Spencer got the inside scoop on the record that’s been a long time coming, Listen to Me, Lightning.

“I’m afraid I’m going to say something that’s like, self-deprecating, and I’m trying not to do that,” Sunny tells me when I ask her what she wants people to know about her new album, “I mean, listen to it when you’re in your feelings and in the headphones. And you don’t really need to listen to it with other people around. I kind of feel like I’m secretive about it, and I feel like everyone else should be too, but I don’t know if that’s true.”

I don’t know if that’s true, either. I’ve spent a lot of time with Sunny Moonshine‘s new offering, Listen to Me, Lightning, and it’s pretty difficult to keep it to myself. And I don’t even own headphones, but Sunny’s lush, layered soundscapes and warm vocals make me wish I did so I could catch every sonic detail. From the shimmering bounce of “Coconuts” to the hazy closing-time-lounge vibes of “Drughands,” Sunny makes a big impact in just ten tracks. It feels like an effort years in the making with a lot of painstaking attention to detail, and that’s (sorta) true.

“I had all these demos, and I put them all in a playlist,” Sunny says, “It was maybe 25 songs, and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really know what to do with these.’ I wanted to figure it out because I’d been putting out demos in SoundCloud, but what would happen if I tried to make them better? Like what would the finished version be? So I posted something on Twitter, and I think I asked for 10 people’s emails and sent 10 people the SoundCloud link. I asked them to give me their favorite songs. I may have said why, but the biggest thing was just finding out which songs people liked before I decided to go and finish some of them. And that’s sort of how I picked the first ones. From there, it was me buying speakers, watching like all these videos on how to mix music, trying to go in and make the beats, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

I’ve never felt self-conscious like I do with this material.”

Listen, the beats are dope. “Light Years” is one of the stand-out tracks for me, not only for its adventurous, compelling structure and eventual deconstruction of itself but also for the way that beat just sneaks in and out of there, unassuming and subtle until you notice your neck snapping under its uncomplicated endurance. Most of the beats on Listen to Me, Lightning, are insidious like that—nothing too flashy, but getting the job done and doing it extremely well.

“I decided that drums are my absolute weakness,” Sunny confesses, “But I had to do it. You have to do everything to find out what you may be good at. And there was a lot of it that I feel like I was okay. I got a lot better at dealing with my vocals. I got a bunch of extra plug-ins. I downloaded every sound from NASA and just fucked with those. I had sort of an idea of how I wanted my music to be. And it is what I wanted for the most part; besides, I’d wanted someone to go through and redo the drums. At the end, I had Gabe [Niles] and [Mike] Mizzle—I brought them in and said, ‘I’m done. I need y’all to kind of like maybe switch out the drums.’ And they’re like, ‘Nope, you gotta keep your drums.’ And I’m scared because I didn’t want my drums in my songs, but they’re there.”

Image courtesy of Lou Cambridge

And that’s the thing I find most admirable about this album – it’s all Sunny. We all know Sunny. She’s (literally) synonymous with Sunny & Gabe—her wildly successful, genre-bending duo with Gabe Niles—and she wowed the local music scene with her short-lived yet unforgettable band Dapzam—yet she chose to make a true solo endeavor. And for all the right reasons.

“I didn’t want to, but I kind of had to,” Sunny tells me about doing an album mostly on her own, “Because I want to be autonomous. I didn’t want to be always bothering someone; I wanted to see what I [could] do. It was less about having to do everything myself than it was about wanting to do everything myself. Because there was a lot of exploring I had to do in order to build the songs up. I didn’t know what I was doing the whole time. It’s like years long of just…layering guitars and putting things in reverse and discovering automation and Ableton and things like that. So it’s all stuff I wanted to do.”

And that’s probably why Listen to Me, Lightning feels personal. Sunny’s perseverance and tenacity pay off in a culmination of strange beauty, heady soundscapes (those NASA sounds, though), hypnotic melodies, and crisp beats. It also feels intimate, though. It’s as if Sunny has let her listeners behind the curtain—even if it’s just a glimpse.

“It was intimate.” Sunny says, “Like, I don’t know how much of it is like deeply personal about breakups and how much of it is just lyrics that you thought sounded good. You know what I mean? I don’t really know what every song is about because it might be about five different things in one. I just know that it’s pretty much like influenced by just heartbreak of all different kinds.”

Image courtesy of Lou Cambridge

“I wanted to help people. That’s the only reason why I want to release this. Because I feel that being very, very vulnerable, like that is something that people need, too. You can help people to deal with whatever they’re going through. It’s very scary. I’m a wreck about it. I’ve been a wreck. That’s why it’s taken me so long. I’ve never felt self-conscious like I do with this material. Listen to it when you need to be comforted because the last time I was having a day, and I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ all upset, I really did lay there with the headphones. Like it wasn’t mine. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay. This helped me.’ I was like the outsider in that situation. So it really is kind of something for people to like lean on or relate with.”

And that’s beautiful. Sunny really hits home with her headphone masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean it’s short of bangers, either. The Mike Strong helmed “Annalise” is sure to be bumping out of trunks all summer long, and the undeniable bounce of “Icicle” is destined for DJ booths. There’s a delicate balance not often valued in today’s single-obsessed SoundCloud, and it’s bound to keep Listen to Me, Lightning on repeat for a long time…or at least until Sunny drops the next joint.

“Oh, I know what’s next,” Sunny tells me, “Because I’m so far past these songs that I’m at the point where I’m just like finding ways to make fun of them. So I feel like I have to release them in order for me to really move forward. So at this point, I’m finally gonna do it. It’s going to make me feel more free. But yeah, what will be next is—“

You know, maybe this is one of those things I will keep to myself.

Featured image courtesy of Lou Cambridge

Listen to Me, Lightning is available wherever you listen to music and you can probably order headphones on the internet somewhere.


Cultivating a Purpose with Black Spirituals’ Asa Jackson

In Asa Jackson’s art, there is a sense of togetherness and harmony that reflects the creator’s innate vision and ability to cultivate something whole out of nothing. The elements in many of his paintings act like puzzle pieces waiting to be perfectly (or imperfectly) aligned…carefully curated to fulfill the prospect of creating a bigger picture…for a bigger purpose.

But Jackson’s holistic approach isn’t limited to just his art. After developing his art career in New York, the artist returned to Virginia to start doing what he does best…cultivating. Gathering his fellow artist peers, Jackson has given life to the blank canvases of Hampton and Newport News with the opening of the 670 Gallery and, newly established, Contemporary Arts Network. Jackson has also served as a member of the Newport News Arts Commission, The Hermitage Education and Public Planning Committee, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, and currently serves as a state commission with the Virginia Arts Commission.

Featured image (Sacred Heart, 2017) courtesy of Asa Jackson

Black Spirituals is officially SOLD OUT…but you can still support by listening to the Black Spirituals album here and the Break Bread podcast. Stay tuned for the Black Spirituals original film…coming soon!

A Colorful Paradox with Black Spirituals’ Hampton Boyer

As I was ushered through the chaotic Slawstrips Kalb this past weekend, it became more and more imminently clear that the high-strung, neurotic environment of sights, sounds, and smells was designed with a purpose in mind. To intently expose the guest with a sensory overload was to give them just a taste of what it’s like to be black in America.

As exaggerative as it was, the alternative dimension of Slawstrips Kalb is the reality of every black American. Hampton Boyer’s art playfully encapsulates that atmosphere to showcase a kaleidoscopic world colored in both suffering and beauty. And that’s the crux of Black Spirituals…there is both significant pain and an inheritable amount of pride and greatness that comes with being black.

Boyer’s vibrant paintings have been featured in galleries and exhibitions such as There’s No Place Like Here at the Virginia MOCA, FADED BY THE SUN at Norfolk’s popblossom, and Primordial Emanations at the Richmond 1708 Gallery. Boyer also serves as the co-founder, curator, advisor, and business developer of The Contemporary Arts Network and member of the avant-garde, hip-hop group the Tunny Crew. You can listen to their newly released concept album, Black Spirituals, here.

Featured image (Catastrophe) is courtesy of Hampton Boyer.

There are still tickets left for the FINAL showing of the Black Spirituals installation, get your tickets here.

The Essence of Reclamation with Black Spirituals’ Nastassja Swift

Reclamation is the essence of artist Nastassja Swift‘s work. Through her trademark wool sculptures, Swift works to honor the body of the black woman—both in the past and present. Historically, the black woman has been seen as a sexual object…existing only (in the world’s eyes) for the gawking gaze of Eurocentric culture. As one of the many products of colonialism, stereotypes drenched in racism, sexism, and misogyny have plagued black women for centuries. From being carted around like a zoo animal (e.g., Saartjie Baartman) to being publicly shamed and blacklisted (e.g., Janet Jackson), black women have dealt the brunt of society’s hand.

And anytime a black woman celebrates who she is and the body she was born with, you can guarantee that there will be backlash because that black woman is establishing autonomy over her body…and that ultimately disrupts the power that the world thinks they have over her.

Swift recognizes this and uses her art to redefine the black woman and her body as is with poignant pieces (e.g., “I Wanted to Give You the Ocean,” “A Party for Sojourner,” and “Passage”), collaborative works (e.g., “Remembering Her Homecoming”), and exhibitions/residencies at national and international institutions (e.g., The Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Michigan, The Colored Girls Musuem in Philadelphia, MASS MoCA, and the VCUQATAR Gallery in Doha, Qatar).

Featured image courtesy of Marlon Turner

You can see more of Nastassja Swift’s art at one of the last two showings of Black Spirituals, get your tickets here!

Restoration Through Art with Black Spirituals’ Mahari Chabwera

The word “black” has been colonized

Deprived of its original beauty, potential, and very existence, the word “black” has been crafted and molded to fit the assumptions so eagerly manufactured by society. As a result, many black individuals throughout history have worked to reclaim the term by actively going against the deep-rooted, hegemonic mindset by way of embracing who they are as a black individual in its most purest definition. VA artist, Mahari Chabwera vigorously contributes in this journey towards reclamation that is as evergreen as time itself.

Working within a black feminist and cosmology lens, Chabwera takes inspiration from esteemed and pivotal artists and writers like Alice Coltrane, Octavia Butler, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, and Jill Scott to serve as a vessel for all of the black women in the past, present, and future. Chabwera has curated exhibitions at Richmond galleries (e.g., 1708 Gallery – Primordial Emanations, Sediment Gallery – In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, and Iridian Gallery – Evolution of The Sacred Self), been the recipient of the 2019-20 Virginia Musuem of Fine Arts Professional Fellowship and 2020 Visual Arts Center Emerging Artist Award, and currently resides as a member of the CAN Foundation‘s First Patron Initiative program.

Featured image courtesy of Nalan Smartt

See Mahari Chabwera in action as she plays “The Shaman” in Black Spirituals. Tickets are still available for the last two weekends of February!

Celebrating Love and Life in Its Most Natural Form with Black Spirituals’ ALXMCHL

If you really think about it, everything we see is a shape. Without a second thought, we go about our lives seeing, analyzing, and accepting shapes as they are in their natural form, taking their very existence for granted. Cubist artist, Alex Michael—better known as ALXMCHL—possesses an acute awareness of this and works to highlight and honor the love and life that lives in every shape we come across.

With compositions like his “MTHRNSON” series, ALXMCHL shows that the love and bond he had, and still has, with his late mother has never been taken for granted. From the Norfolk NEON Arts District to the Virginia Beach ViBe Creative District, the memory and energy of his mother’s love and life is honored in the most organic way he knows how—through shapes.

Get to know the CAN artist a little bit more in our conversation below.

What led you to becoming an artist?

Art had been a passion of mine since I could remember. I would draw and color alongside my mother as she would sketch out and decorate beautiful cakes for her clientele. There was a creative lane we shared love for. Her passing led me to where I am today as an artist.

What medium do you find yourself working with most? Is there a medium that you would like to incorporate more into your future works?

I find myself exploring with oils the most! In the studio, I mix my own medium from stand oil and turps. This comes in handy if I need a little extra flow for details or to loosen up some of the stiffer oils. If I’m building up a painting in layers in the studio, I will use a little glaze medium together with my solvent. I keep it messy for the earlier stages with dried, overused brushes and miscellaneous tools, coming back to flirt with details later on in the painting’s phases.

How does your creative process begin?

I sit in front of a blank canvas that I painted over years ago or a freshly purchased cloth from the day of and hold a conversation with my mother. Normally the conversation plays in my mind vivid memories that stir up a positive push. That emotion normally leads into the shape [the] painting takes minutes later.

“Who” or “What” is inspiring you the most these days?

The “Who” and “What” inspiring me these days is family–my nieces and nephews as of late, to be specific. I have a beautiful and smart niece steadily advancing and discovering herself and interests daily. It’s amazing. Then, arriving later this year is her brother and cousin. New life. New energy. New discovery. New space. New perspective. Growth has been inspiring.

Many of your pieces are continuations of what you have titled, “MTHRNSON” followed by a Roman numeral. Can you explain a little more on what those pieces mean to you?

The MTHRNSON series, followed by the Roman numeral, is a series that finishes this year. I began this series five years ago with the hopes of reaching 10 murals by the ten year anniversary of my mother’s passing date, which is September 2021. During this long mural series, I have had the privileges of travel and new memory created in celebration of our connection. A new light of Mother and son time I can continue to appreciate and polish in my career.

Do you have a favorite set from the installation?

My favorite set from Black Spirituals would have to be “The Funeral” and “The Ghost Bar.”

“The Funeral” holds an array of depth between passionate red artwork executed by the First Patron artists in residence at the CAN and the soulful expressions of emotional performance poured to the public by the Tunny Crew. The work ethic and mentality these individuals birth are unmatchable.

“The Ghost Bar” shares that social atmosphere that I am very familiar with and comfortable in. I do not get to play a role in this set, but if I wasn’t busy walking on stilts as the “gatekeeper” in “The Funeral” room, “The Ghost Bar” is where you could find me taking a sip.

I had fun putting this set together. The fabric wall is a wall of cool-toned textiles stapled together, a process I will introduce this summer through my most recent MTHRNSON works in a two-man show with Hampton Boyer.

What is the biggest thing you hope for viewers to take out of Black Spirituals?

I hope the viewers can recognize, appreciate, and celebrate liberation. Black Spirituals pulls a person into a new or augmented reality through art. It is easily one of the most powerful and beautiful experiences I have been a part of in my artist career. Experiences and energy are endless at the CAN!

Image courtesy of Nalan Smartt

Featured image courtesy of Alex Michael (ALXMCHL)

Black Spirituals tickets are still available for 2/20 and 2/27. Purchase your tickets here before they go for good!

More Than Meets the Eye(s): A Peek Into Black Spirituals’ Adewale Alli

The human experience is one filled with irony. Those first moments of existence, we are seen as pure but deemed born into sin. We’re taught from a very young age that we’re all uniquely unique, but are then carefully crafted to be the same as the next. Before you know it, you’re living the same life as the one before, living someone else’s “truth.”

Artist Adewale Alli knows this all too well, and through his art, offers a chance…an escape from the imposed sociological sanctions of society. With his trademark “red eyes” and color-centric pieces, the Baltimore artist invokes an unsettling sense of urgency in introspection. His work beckons the viewer to reach into their subconscious and acknowledge the things buried deep.

Take a peek at the conversation I had with the CAN First Patron artist below as we talk about his evolving relationship with color, his inspirations, and his favorite set from the Black Spirituals installation.

What led you to adopting art as a career and lifestyle?

That is a long story!!!! Let’s just say it became an overwhelming passion I could not ignore, and it’s in my blood.

What medium do you find yourself working with most? Is there a medium that you would like to incorporate more into your future works?

These days I’ve been working with polyurethane. It’s a very interesting medium. I get to play with form and texture, [and] it really feels like I’m creating, not just painting. I would love to incorporate fire. I’m a pyromaniac; I have this crazy obsession with creating fire. I believe fire is a very misunderstood element.

How does your creative process begin?

It alway begins with a dream. Dreams are weird because they are our brain’s way of telling us secrets we withhold from ourselves when we’re awake. I like that I can steal those secrets and stories and turn them into something I can show the world. So I wake up, jot down what I can remember, and set out to share it with the world the only way I know how.

“Who” or “What” is inspiring you the most these days?

For who, I have three people that inspire me: ASA [Jackson], Anselm Kiefer, and Bram Bogart. And for what, I believe that would be my progressive understanding of the cosmos as it is, not as it is described.

There is a clear shift from your past works to your more recent works, specifically with the implementation of color. What was the catalyst behind that change?

I have always wanted to explore with color, but I’ve always been afraid of it, so I wanted to challenge myself. I believe that my relationship with color has evolved over time and is still far from being complete. Previously (depending on when you began following my work), my use of color was juvenile, bleaker, and more focused on form.

Now, I am realizing that color is not a tool but a language artists and non-artists alike use to convey meaning and messages to the masses. I found myself immersing deeply in the way humans use color to communicate, from artificial uses like the red in stop signs to instinctual uses like the red in blood…both meant to warn people. The study of color, and all of its uses, helps me to learn and create anew.

I’ve recognized shifting red eyes to be a staple in a lot of your paintings. Is there an underlying significance there?

The quintessential red eyes! Those have meant so many things to me over the years I first adopted them. I don’t think I could tell you what they mean to me now, but I can tell you the feelings they elicit in my audience and why I like them.

I’ve been told that the red eyes make people uneasy, wary, suspicious, and conscious of their surroundings. I’ve also been told that they cause people to look at their surroundings then into themselves to see if they’re missing something important. I feel all those feelings every day: doubt, concern, and curiosity. I like that the meaning (no matter how arbitrary it may be) can be conveyed to the audience in so many interpretations.

Do you have a favorite set from the installation?

The Red Room!!!!! The energy in that room is unbelievably intense, and I love it!! It is also my favorite color to look at.

What is the biggest thing you hope for viewers to take out of Black Spirituals?

I want people to leave this installation feeling the same way I felt, pure awe. Artists put a lot of their life into making pieces and telling stories. We do it for the artistry and love for it…sure, but also for the validation from our audience.

I want the people that go in and come out to feel like they found a piece of themselves in there that they never knew they were missing. I want them to feel even more connected or embedded in the human experience and be thankful for that.

Image courtesy of @contemporaryartsnetwork

Featured image (Born Of The Sun”) is courtesy of Adewale Alli

There are still a couple of dates left for Black Spirituals. Be sure to get your tickets here!

A Change in Perspective with Black Spirituals’ Dathan Kane

When you think “black and white,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Most people would say something along the lines of rules or limitations…outdated structures of time and space—but VA artist Dathan Kane is not “most people.” Rather than subscribing to the realm of conventional human expectations, Kane’s world of “organic black and white shapes” operates like a Rorschach Test, full of limitless possibilities for viewers to see, interpret, and experience.

With his signature style being established throughout the East Coast (e.g., Virginia and North Carolina), West Coast (e.g., California and Washington), and internationally (e.g., China), Kane’s goal of interrupting the daily drone of life with “color” and a new perspective is becoming closer than ever.

Read my conversation with the Hampton artist below about his approach to art, his creative process, and thought process behind the Black Spirituals “Opium Den.”

How did you get started in art?

Art has always been a part of my life. I was originally inspired by anime, cartoons, comics and manga growing up. I started drawing to help channel my imagination as a way to keep myself entertained as an only child.

What medium do you find yourself working with most? Is there a medium that you would like to incorporate more into your future works?

I find myself working with acrylics and wall paint all the time now. In this stage of my career, I’m focused on murals/street art, but I would be open to explor[ing] sculpture again.

How does your creative process begin?

My process typically begins with a general design concept in my head that would best fit the space or surface that I’m working on. When painting on canvas, I tend to use a burnt umber color as a base layer before painting any black. When it comes to murals, I go right to the “black paint” to cover the exterior surface, beginning my phase one. Phase two begins with outlining a potential design that can be organic and responsive to the shapes I put down. Phase three ends with filling in the overlapping and crossing lines with “white paint” to form complete shapes for a finished composition.

Your niche seems to be solely focused on black and white patterns. Is there a reasoning behind your style?

I wanted to create something bold that people would stop to question. Color is something that people expect to see when viewing art but can be thrown off when it is absent. Drawing also serves as the foundation for worlds that people can come into, so I have always had intentions on doing the same. I wanted to create a world that would spawn emotional responses that could be seen as positive or negative using bold, organic black and white shapes.

You are the artist that created the mural I referenced in the “Of What Could Be, Of What Can Be” feature. What was your approach to that piece? Also, thank you for that added “color” and character on that bleak stretch of road!

I feel honored by your response to that project. The mural I created for the (CAN) titled “Lyft Up” (2020) was a direct response to COVID-19. When Asa [Jackson] first purchased the (CAN) he originally wanted me to paint the front of the building, but I knew that I wanted the biggest wall.

My goal for the project was to bring attention to the (CAN) to say that we are here and things will get better. This took place during a time when people needed to have their spirits lifted, and I had the will to accomplish this without the use of a “lyft” or cherry picker.

Can you talk a little more about the significance of the “Opium Den” in Black Spirituals?

The “Opium Den” was a space created specifically for Max P’s overdose scene in the Black Spirituals story. I needed to create a fun, distorted place that gave a “Willy Wonka” energy to it. We knew that this space had to represent a place of freedom and temptation for anything that would be offered during a party situation. I titled this installation, “Goodtime” (2021).

Dathan Kane, “Goodtime,” 2021. The Contemporary Arts Network, Newport News, Virginia

Do you have a favorite set from the installation?

Besides “Goodtime” (2021), my top set would have to be the “RED Room.”

What is the biggest thing you hope for viewers to take out of Black Spirituals?

I hope viewers can leave this show feeling impacted, shocked and encouraged to help change the way people of color have been treated throughout time.

Image courtesy of @contemporaryartsnetwork

Featured image courtesy of Alchemy NFK

Black Spirituals will be running throughout the entirety of February–be sure to get your tickets and experience the thrilling trip through Slawstrips Kalb, here!

Of What Could Be, Of What Can Be: The Reimagining Tale of Black Spirituals

Embark on a one-of-a-kind expedition through time to Slawstrips Kalb–“a hyper-satiric alternate reality” where the audience is subject to the “Black American life” by way of four teenagers working through the challenges brought on by “the choices they make and temptations they follow.” Written, composed, and directed by the Newport News Contemporary Arts Network’s (CAN) Tunny Crew, Black Spirituals is a “retelling” of the black individual’s story “from a place of empowerment.” The art installation will debut this Saturday, January 23rd at the Newport News CAN HQ, and will run on each consecutive Saturday for the entirety of Black History Month (visitors may also purchase tickets to tour the exhibit on Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the month of February). Purchase your tickets here and read up on Popscure member Jasmine’s pre-debut thoughts on Black Spirituals below!

There was a general route I would take during my daily commute from the James River Bridge to the far ends of Newport News. Every day I would pass through this monochromatic route of grays and browns—heightened especially on gloomy days. And each day, I would scan the surrounding buildings…my mind always on autopilot mode. That is…until I saw a building I’d seen a million times, but this time things were different. This time the building had character…presence. Funnily enough, the building’s side was painted in a pattern of black and white—yet, it was as if it was saying, “Look at me!” As time passed, more murals were added to the lone building, ultimately creating a beacon of life amidst the lifeless stretch of road—signifying the possibility of what could be, of what can be.

Little did I know that I would be in that same building (many) months later taking in before me a vast set-up for an art installation—Black Spirituals. But just limiting it to the description of “art installation” almost doesn’t seem to do Black Spirituals, or its vision, justice. Deemed “an emancipated Negro Spiritual,” the experience is a stimulating amalgamation of mixed media creating an alternate reality as expansive as its goals to produce dialogue and education through topics ranging from mental health surrounding grief and loss, police brutality, racism in America, the drug epidemic, familial dysfunction, and exploitation within industries. With works from the CAN Foundation’s First Patron artists (Mahari Chabwera, Nastassja Swift, Asa Jackson, Hampton Boyer, and Adewale Alli) and CAN artists (Dathan Kane and Alex Michael), the collaborative venture bypasses traditional limitations in favor for delivering its message through a play and exhibition, original motion picture, and album. And really, I think that is the underlying beauty of Black Spirituals.

The topics in and of itself are undoubtedly important and way past overdue for discussion, but the true gem of Black Spirituals lies in the possibility…the possibilities. To me, the reclamation that is Black Spirituals transcends past its initial purpose to educate and furthermore invites you to imagine…to manifest…to change…to reclaim. The black narrative has been tainted throughout all aspects of life in history with black people being consistently portrayed as lesser than…lazy…sexual deviants or violent criminals—all damning qualities consciously and subconsciously taken without any further thought. You see it in the way the media portrays black individuals after the umpteenth fatal death by a police officer’s hand, or the way young black girls are seen and treated as sexual beings before they’re even able to comprehend what that even means. No one ever seems to ask about the “how’s” or “why’s” of social disparities as it relates to poverty and welfare, lack of education, drug abuse, or the most favored red herring of debate—“black-on-black” crime. How do you think a young child would feel if they were constantly inundated with such toxic preconceptions before knowing what that word even meant? Black Spirituals reclaims the black narrative, reimagines the story, and reveals the possibilities. Black Spirituals is the reclamation of identity…sense of self-worth…sense of purpose…sense of belonging. Black Spirituals is the possibility of what could be, of what can be.

All featured images courtesy of Nathan Croslin, Nalan Smartt, and Chip Jackson

Black Spirituals will debut tomorrow and run from 7:00-10:00 PM. Can’t make it? Don’t worry—the installation will run throughout Black History Month every consecutive Saturday and be open for Wednesday and Thursday tours throughout February. Get your tickets and find out more information here, and be sure to stay tuned for more from Black Spirituals.

A Little Respect: An Examination of Representation, Double Standards, and Gatekeeping in Kpop & Hip-Hop

There’s something that has really been grinding my gears lately (amongst the million other things that have made the past year more than trying). Admittedly, it doesn’t take a lot to make me agitated (s/o to my fellow fire sign friends), but there have been slights about a particular music genre that has seemed to increase in volume as of late.

I’m talking about Kpop.

You may have heard it. Western coverage on big groups like BTS (who just became the first Kpop group to be nominated for a Grammy in a major category) have been on the rise since 2017, when the Korean group became the first Kpop act to perform on a major American awards show. Performing their then single, “DNA,” the group wowed just about anyone that was completely unaware of them.

Personally, I had no idea about who these guys were or what their music sounded like. I tuned in with a peaked curiosity that was satiated far past expectations. It was more than their sound, or their ability to sing and rap…more than their charisma or their impeccable style. It was their aura. There was an overwhelming sense of passion that exuded from them that was undeniably alluring.

The next day I decided to play their recent release, Love Yourself ‘Her”, on my commute to class. I re-listened to the song, “DNA,” bopping along as I crossed the bridge to my destination, but what ultimately sealed the deal was the track, “Intro: Serendipity,” performed by one of the members, Jimin.

The best way to describe the song would be to personify it as the feeling of finally finding someone or something and euphorically falling in love. For instance, my euphoric moment would be my first true discovery of music. There are no words to explain that feeling because it’s just that—a feeling. So, flashback to my car commute…I hear this song…and I experience that feeling again. Without warning, I fell in love again, and I realized that those three letters, “BTS,” were more than an acronym.

“Intro: Serendipity” – BTS

But we’re not here to talk about just BTS or Kpop for that matter. Instead, I want to impart a broader lens on the bigger picture of music, culture, and entertainment between the western and eastern world, two worlds with so many differences, but even more similarities. And because I don’t want to bore you to tears, this will be an ongoing series because I got a lot to say. So sit down, get comfy, grab a drink (preferably water-stay hydrated), and get ready to have a much-needed discussion on some things.

Hip-hop. We all know it and love it (at least, most of us do). And when we think of hip-hop, what culture do we immediately associate it with…black culture. And nothing is inherently wrong with that, right? Because hip-hop has been a part of black culture since that first Bronx basement party in 1973, thrown by DJ Kool Herc. Hip-hop is to black culture as black culture is to hip-hop.

So what happens when other cultures latch onto arguably one of the most defined, prominent, and influential music styles of time?

Of course, there are going to be emulators and inspired artists; good music is supposed to move people and create some sort of manifestation of influence. With the decades of hip-hop and rap, there’s bound to be a major movement of others feeling the need to express themselves in the same way.

So picture this – It’s the 80s, and the top-charting pop songs in your country are placid, “safe” ballads with predictability waiting around every verse and chorus—this was the case for Korea. The country had what they called “healthy songs,” songs that were non-controversial and patriotic wrapped up in a pop-ballad formula for the mainstream airwaves…the only airwaves. With limited access to other various styles of music, the hunger for something different swelled, leading to a much more significant result than imagined.

Flash forward to 1992. Trio, Seo Taiji and Boys enter the scene with a loud western presence. I mean these guys were wearing the baggy clothing, breakdancing, and owning the stage with a charisma that rivaled any American performer. So you can imagine how the older generation felt with apprehension and confusion filling the minds of many—a classic case of the “moral panic.” That same group would continue to pave their way towards becoming one of the first coined Kpop idol groups for Korea, further spurring what would become known as the “Korean Wave” or Hallyu.

Seo Taiji and Boys

But what really drives this event home (at least for me) is their unapologetic fervor to speaking and expressing their truth. 1995 track, “Come Back Home,” a song about the enduring, societal pressures facing the younger generations, presents hard-pressed questions like, “What am I trying to find now?” or affirmations like, “My rage toward this society/Is getting greater and greater/Finally, it turned into disgust/Truths disappear at the tip of the tongue.”

What they did was bring an element of connection and catharsis into their music that seemed to be lacking from previous Korean pop music. They spoke their minds and expressed their feelings allowing for a space of connection and dialogue to occur amongst the younger public. You could say that “Come Back Home” was the Korean equivalent to 1982’s “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five—a very pivotal song in the history of hip-hop and social commentary.

This brings us to the two main topics of discussion—representation and cultural appropriation.

Representation and Double Standards

Whether we realize it or not, all forms of media have had, and continue to have, outstanding implications and influence on our daily lives (think the Arab Spring protests and the BlackLivesMatter movement). At this point, you may be asking, ‘Why are we talking about this? I thought we were talking about hip-hop and Kpop?’ Well, as the lovely subtitle above says…this is a section on representation and double standards, much of which is very reliant on entertainment and media.

For example, the late 19th/early 20th century introduced a western portrayal of Asian immigrants through film with roles that were meant to degrade and subjugate. Belittling generalizations like fictional character, Fu Manchu, depicted Asian people as cunning invaders biding time until achieving global domination, furthering the perception of Chinese immigrants as the evil “yellow peril.”

And yet on the other end of the spectrum, fictional characters like Charlie Chan would paint Chinese immigrants as passive and intelligent but socially inept with a poor grasp on the English language. Rest assure, however, that there was more to add to the representation package of Chinese immigrants with coveted roles that included playing servants and prostitutes. For the cherry on top, these characters were performed under the guise of “yellow face.”

Consequently, these stereotypes defined Chinese immigrants as either sinister masterminds or buffoons, inevitably leading to a distasteful amount of xenophobia and nationalism.

So how does this relate to today? As many like to say, history repeats itself, and while things are arguably better, there are still insinuations of the past that linger in a more covert manner. Enter the stage—double standards. New York Times piece, “Why do Asian-Americans Remain Largely Unseen in Film and Television?” by Thessaly La Force, speaks on the persistence of worn-out prejudices towards Asian-Americans with tired tropes depicting them as smart and hard-working, but boring and plain.

I mean c’mon…we all know we’ve heard or said something along the lines of Asian people being so good at math or the martial arts. We never, if rarely, see Asian actors consistently occupying a prominent part in a feature film – nor do we see them ever playing the roles they were originally written for (e.g., Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange), until recently with films like Crazy Rich Asians. And sure, we have classic martial arts films like Enter the Dragon, but there’s more to Asian people than just martial arts—their identity is as dimensional as anyone else’s.

Furthermore, Asian artists in the music industry are not taken seriously in comparison to their peers of non-Asian descent. Groups like Far East Movement experienced xenophobic insults and harping on social media during the height of their career in the United States. 2010 single, “Like a G6,” took off and launched the collective to become the first Asian-American group to reach #1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100. Yet, that wasn’t enough for some American consumers as condescending comments aimed at the group “to go back to Asia” filled social media.

Which brings me to a more recent example from the 2019, “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” special. BTS was scheduled to perform during the night’s festivities, something that many fans were excited about, me included. It was an opportunity for more representation on a program being watched by about 7.2-10.7 million viewers, but with one step towards progression are two steps backward. CNN correspondents for the night, journalist Anderson Cooper and Bravo TV reality host Andy Cohen, couldn’t help but make snide comments about the Korean artists as they proceeded to talk throughout the entire performance.

It’s remarks like these that make me wonder what else Asian entertainers can do to gain the respect of the western world? Breaking all of the records possible or achieving the unthinkable are all great and fun, yet seem to never amount to anything in the western gaze. Maybe that’s the lesson in all of this – they don’t need the approval of others…they’re surely accomplishing much of what they set out to do, regardless. But I can’t help but think about La Force’s words, “And that is why we will never be compelling enough to be the hero in your eyes.”


Cultural baggage…what better way to start this section than with those two words. Cultural baggage is in the words we hear… the songs we sing… the thoughts we think. Like anything else in this world, it’s complex.

For this section, the words “cultural baggage,” mean the long, long years of history that have resulted in the suppression of black voices. I’m talking about the years and years of thievery against black artists and the black identity. As a result, there may be a better understanding of why there is an expressed need for gatekeeping within the hip-hop community, consequently ensuing discussion on what counts as cultural appropriation.

While writing this, it really dawned on me how interconnected moments in time really are. The year 1900 may seem so far away, but when you really analyze it, you start to realize that underneath it all, some things (a lot of things) really haven’t changed. Frankly, it uncovers the interpellated state that really all of us are in for most of our lives, that is…until we start to question.

Growing up, I was inundated with all kinds of music, ranging from merengue to disco to grunge rock to R&B; there was no genre untouched. I remember one artist in particular that my little, Hispanic grandma loved, Elvis Presley. Growing up during his heyday, my grandma was a big fan, so naturally, I thought he was cool because my grandma is cool—duh. There wasn’t really a specific moment in time when I found out that Elvis sung songs that weren’t his, the realization just kind of accumulated throughout the years.

Songs like “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog,” originally written for and performed by Big Mama Thornton, were “culturally cleansed” to appeal to the masses—the white consumer. Where once existed a drawl and lag of ache and soul, came a sterile, clean, upbeat version with plain accentuations and musicality to dazzle the uniform minds of white America. Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t anything innately wrong with enjoying the Elvis version over the original. Music is subjective after all, and some people may prefer a cleaner pop sound as opposed to a grittier, soulful sound. That’s fair.

The gripe resides in the fact that so many black artists of that time delivered really good, authentic music, but because they were black, that owed success was never met. Elvis was just another symbol of appropriation…another symbol of control over the life of the black individual. He was the ultimate signifier that, ‘Yeah, you’re good…you have talent…but you’re black. But this guy over here? This guy has got good looks, can carry a tune, and he’s white.’ Of course, this sentiment was carried out in a more subdued manner, but you get the gist.

Yet some black artists had nothing but respect for “the King.” Artists like Little Richard to James Brown respected Presley and Presley, in turn, praised the many black artists before him. But like I said, the gripe was never fully against the individual—it’s always been against the system. The system that has been against black people since the beginning. Detailed accounts of minstrel entertainment in the mid/late 1800s to early 1900s proves that this notion of “theft” has been around for longer than many would like to admit. However, in this case, the theft wasn’t solely music-related but instead immersed in the stolen sense of identity.

Minstrel entertainers like Thomas Dartmouth Rice (also known as “Daddy Rice”) or the Virginia Minstrels were all the rage for white Americans who lauded at the overly dramatic, blackfaced performers; meanwhile, black slaves toiled away to survive, nevermind live. If our translated emotions of hardship into sounds of raw expression weren’t enough to take away, then the identity of who we were would surely solidify the feeling of humiliation that was meant to define our status in life—our status in the system.

Thomas D. Rice dancing in blackface

So you can see WHY gatekeeping in hip-hop is almost a means to survival—it’s ingrained in the nature of the people who created it, who lived and breathed it, who depended on it. It’s more than a fad or a trend…it’s more than fame and accolades…more than a genre or a simple name. It’s one of the few things that hasn’t been totally capitalized by others outside the black community—in a way I think it’s almost sacred. When you have the public and music industry saying your sound is “too black” to be considered country (e.g., Lil Nas X – “Old Town Road”) or your simple blackness is “too sexual” (e.g., Little Richard – “Tutti Frutti”) it gets old…fast. And that kind of gatekeeping is still prevalent today. Like I said…some things haven’t changed.

Wesley Morris’ “For centuries, black music…” instilled in me perhaps the most resonant revelation in the matter of this entire piece; “Americans have made a political investment in a myth of radial separateness, the idea that art forms can be either “white” or “black” in character when aspects of many are at least both.” What’s wild about this WHOLE thing is that we have all, to some degree, fallen victim to this idea that music ever belonged to one race.

Why is it that music has been categorized into an ignorant, social construct? Why was there even such a thing as “race music” in the 1920s-1940s? Why do black kids get made fun of for listening to “white people music”–in other words, rock–from their own community? Give me a break. Music, in its purest form, is a feeling…an expression of emotion…an outlet of happiness, anger, joy, pain. Morris states that it’s more complicated than any word could define. The term “appropriation” only skims the surface of what we are really talking about here.

So where does that leave us? I think we would all be doing ourselves, and music, a disservice by falling prone to these invisible boxes of delegation. That’s not to say that respect shouldn’t be given where respect is due. All of the Chuck Berrys, Sister Rosetta Tharpes, Sam Cookes, Rakims, and Notorious B.I.G.s (the list can go on and on) should undoubtedly be given the respect they deserve—because, at the end of the day, it all comes down to a level of respect and understanding.

The most important takeaway from all of this is the transcendence of music. Music transcends all languages, expectations, judgments, skin colors, ideologies, wars—it transcends all.

You see it in songs like the 2000s-esque, R&B “Lookin 4” (Crush feat. Devin Morrison and Joyce Wrice), trilingual homage “Chicken Noodle Soup” (BTS’ J-Hope feat. Becky G), or bias challenging “FSU” (Jay Park feat. GASHI and Rich The Kid); all songs that bring various representations of culture and flavor under one umbrella.

“Chicken Noodle Soup” – J-Hope feat. Becky G

Again, I stress that that isn’t to say that respect shouldn’t be given where it’s due. Many love to take and suck all that they can from black culture—from our music, to our clothes…even to our hair; yet, they fail to show that same appreciation and respect to the people behind that culture—black people. It’s, unfortunately, seen countless times in Kpop, and as we move forward it is my hope that the respect will become second nature to artists and labels of that industry.

Being a homogenous culture, it’s a work in progress but recent events have shown that there is solidarity and respect with Korean artists like BTS, Jay Park, Crush, Tiger JK, GOT7, and others showing their support through statements and donations towards the BlackLivesMatter movement this past summer. Crush aptly said, “Many artists and people around the world get so much inspiration by black culture and music, including me. We have a duty to respect every race.”

That level of recognition and awareness is key to moving forward into a realm where respect is formed and nurtured through conversations between one another from different cultures. Korean YouTube channel, DKDKTV had a segment on cultural appropriation in Kpop, imparting the valuable lesson to “not fall trapped in our own world…to engage in conversations with people from different cultures…to widen [our] views of the world.” It’s so simple, yet unbelievably overlooked.

And with that, I hope the main thing you get from all of this isn’t me telling you that you should listen to Kpop because I think it’s good. Rather, I implore you to take a quick minute of introspection and look at your own biases—whether that be in music, culture, food, WHATEVER IT MAY BE. Because it’s in those moments where you may realize that we all aren’t so different after all.