US drummer and producer Dana Murray’s album Negro Manifesto places him in the vanguard of a wave of artists getting under the skin of contemporary America. AJ Dehany spoke to him ahead of the release of his new video Suite Kaepernick.
Dana Murray’s compelling new video Suite Kaepernick just dropped in the midst of a radical, politicised time in music. I think of it as experimental music’s counterpart to Childish Gambino’s This Is America – a track whose depiction of American gun culture and black experience has achieved the status of an instant classic, finding company with other crucial statements from key artists depicting the problems of contemporary America.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade film boldly referenced the #BlackLivesMatter movement with the explicit plea, “STOP SHOOTING US”. Vince Staples‘ Norf Norf video shows the rapper being detained and maltreated by the police with the refrain “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police”. Kendrick Lamar’s Alright was sung by crowds in Ferguson, Missouri, after Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood by his white neighbour. In jazz, Irreversible Entanglements have renewed politicised free jazz, and the new Last Poets album Understand What Black Is mixes jazz, hip-hop and Caribbean influences with political poems that strongly speak to the present day.
I spoke to Dana Murray via Skype between London, UK, and Omaha, USA. In 2003 he moved there from New York City to raise his son and started teaching. He is now a full-time musician again and when I spoke to him he had just finished mixing the new Tarbaby album with Orrin Evans and was preparing the groundwork for his own next album, with plans to tour the USA in summer and Europe (including London) in autumn. I asked him about the background to the new video, Suite Kaepernick.
LondonJazz News: We’ve been following the long-running Kaepernick story concerning the NFL player who refused to stand for the National Anthem to protest police brutality. What is the latest on the story, and, for the benefit of those of us in the UK, what happened and why is it significant?
Dana Murray: Colin Kaepernick. I don’t think he was the one that started the kneeling but he definitely became the face of the kneeling during the National Anthem to protest injustices here in the United States, and his movement sort of caught on. They tried to shut it down and say that if you wanna protest just don’t come out during the National Anthem so as to not offend anyone. Which goes against all of the constitutional statutes that state everyone has freedom of speech. In the meantime Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t been able to land another job in the NFL, which speaks to the injustice a lot of people have to face when they speak up against things that aren’t right.
LJN: Kaepernick explicitly said he was doing it because he wanted to protest police brutality specifically, and then it was reinterpreted as some kind of diss about the armed services.
DM: Well, hijacked by our president. That’s a whole ‘nother damn discussion. I never pull any punches when it comes to our president. He is very calculated; he is not an empathetic or compassionate human being. All the things that are necessary to bring about constructive discussion that can bring about change, or even evolution into something better than what you’re in, he’s not that guy. Anybody that thinks that he is really about making things better for people and not himself is a damn fool.
LJN: Suite Kaepernick starts with The Star-Spangled Banner, a reference to the Kaepernick affair, then it goes into deeper issues, with images of cotton fields, footage from archives, newly-filmed material, CCTV of police brutality, then all the machine stuff, and images of marches. It ties together in a historical view with Kaepernick as the contemporary point of focus.
DM: I wanted to start off with The Star-Spangled Banner but using the third verse, which most Americans don’t even know exists. I wanted to present that verse, because anyone that said “Wait a minute! That’s blasphemous! What are these words that you have over the tune?” Well, that’s what Francis Scott Key wrote. If he is saying “Land of the free” and it was written in 1814 and blacks weren’t free constitutionally until 1865, then he obviously wasn’t talking about me or people like me. That’s obvious, right?
It goes from that into Part 2 in which there’s a lot of imagery of police shooting unarmed black men, and when you see a visual of that – and I gotta tell you, it took me a while. I still don’t think that I’m quite over the investigation stage of that ‘cos I did a lot of poring through videos and articles to get the footage that I have chosen for the video. And that’s hard, man. When you go through and you’re doing a case study and really gathering information and video content it’s like “Good Lord! You almost can’t believe it’s real”.
Part 3 is The Machine. You go from seeing people in cotton fields to seeing how the infrastructure of railroads came about, and then you fast forward and you see New York City, so you can see the mechanism that went into building the metropolis that is the United States. I tried to portray that from very simple beginnings, the exploitation that came from slavery, that came from blacks in this country. That’s how the wealth in this country was built. This happened. This is how we’re here.
LJN: In Temptation on the album, there’s a drum hit that sounds like a gunshot, and in Suite Kaepernick one of the first lines is “Black names written on bullets”. America’s gun problem is unforgettably depicted in Childish Gambino’s video This Is America which has sparked huge debate. Suite Kaepernick was created before This Is America but it raises many of the same themes. I see it as it is experimental music’s counterpart to This Is America. What do you think of Gambino?
DM: I love Gambino, man. I love Atlanta [TV comedy series starring Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino]. I love… you know what, I just love his absolute commitment to doing art the way he wants to do it. Whether someone digs it or they don’t, it’s always sincere, it’s always real. So, when I saw This Is America, it got me the same way. Even though I’ve been immersed in creating the same sort of material, you can appreciate the artist, it’s like “Damn!”
In This Is America he’s comin’ out, he’s got his shirt off, I can see some of the symbolism, the civil war pants. When that guy’s playing the guitar, then all of a sudden he has the mask and it’s seemingly a serene sort of environment and he pulls the gun out and shoots him, it’s like “Whoa! Wait a minute”. He got me. He fooled me. It was like “Ohhhhh shit, did he just go there?”
LJN: What’s behind the album title Negro Manifesto?
DM: There is a real album by the Pepsi Corporation in 1963 called Adventures in Negro History. It was a sincere effort at that time to bridge the gap between races, to show a more diverse part of our country’s history and what blacks contributed. It’s just that when you listen back to it a lot of things are just so… racist, you know? How they painted the picture is very different to how someone would paint it now. You can see that someone was speaking from absolute leverage and power about how someone else’s plight went down.
LJN: The album uses samples from Adventures in Negro History, films and archives to express a historical sense. It is also a synthesis of your ideas about music, rhythm and groove, using elements including hip hop, industrial noise, and jazz.
DM: What I attempted to do is not come off like I wanted to stand on a soap box and bitch about how fucked up things are. I didn’t wanna be the soapbox guy but I wanted to be the guy that said “Okay, obviously this is happening”. That’s why there’s a lot of historical context on the album. That’s not my opinion: this is stuff that happened. So if we can agree that all this stuff happened then all we are really disagreeing on is the level of pain someone should still have in their life today.
Yes, it happened a while ago, but obviously there’s still things from there that affect the now. And me as a black person, I feel that every day. It doesn’t have to be totally a negative energy but I know it’s there. I know that things in this country are still leveraged against someone like me. Even if it is not blatant it is still woven into the fabric of what this country is. I’m also not stupid enough to think that things would have been that much better in this little time. I’m not one to say “It should be…” There’s too many flaws in humanity for shit to be exactly what it should be only 50-something years after desegregation.
LJN: The album ends recalling the refrain “Through your eyes”: I took that as the necessity of empathy: knowledge and empathy. With artists raising the issues it feels like change is in the air. What is the mood like in America?
DM: Right now it’s very polarised. And to be honest with you, with the election of Donald Trump, when we look back on the history of race relations 100 years, 200 years from now, this will be a cornerstone. He brought out of the woodwork a lot of stuff that people were already thinking about, ideas that they already embodied, but now they feel emboldened to bring those out to the surface. So now you can actually see way more vividly the fabric of the country. If you bring it out into the open, then you can deal with it. So looking through things through a macro lens is actually exactly what the country needed. Something so ridiculous and polarising as Donald Trump actually was exactly what the country needed.
LJN: That’s a thought-provoking statement. How do we move forward from this point?
DM: I tried to be as candid and as open in all these questions because I don’t want anybody to paint the narrative for me. I’m all about trying to start the conversation, start the dialogue, to move the needle. The conversations are tough sometimes. But if everyone comes in wanting the same thing, you’re gonna always find some common ground and get to something that is constructive enough to move things forward.
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk