Adrian Younge – The American Negro
(Jazz Is Dead Records – Album Review by Jane Mann)
Californian lawyer-turned-musician Adrian Younge is a composer, recording engineer and producer who adores classic soul music. He composed the soundtracks for Black Dynamite, a 2009 American blaxploitation action comedy film, and the TV series Marvel’s Luke Cage (2016-18) – the latter with long term collaborator Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest.
Younge also plays in an ensemble with Shaheed Muhammad called The Midnight Hour and has produced for Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar and Wu-Tang Clan. His own music blends elements of hip-hop, R&B and jazz with his beloved soul music.
The American Negro is a multimedia project, comprising an album, a four-part podcast called Invisible Blackness with Adrian Younge, and a short film T.A.N. due to appear on Amazon Prime at the end of the month. Younge composed the music, plays every instrument in the rhythm section himself, and wrote the lyrics. Vocals are provided by singers Loren Oden, Chester Gregory and Sam Harmonix. The spoken word elements are written and performed by Younge. The whole thing was recorded and engineered at his analogue studio in Los Angeles which is dedicated to producing what he calls “Adrian Younge’s golden era of sound (’68-’73).”
Younge’s objective with this project is to uncover the origins and evolution of racism in America across various platforms. The shocking image on the front cover of the album is a jolting reminder of the horrific racist actions carried out by White Americans in living memory. It’s a photo of a man hanging from a tree, a re-creation of a type of popular souvenir item, first produced in the late 19th century in America, but obtainable right up to the first half of the 20th Century: lynching postcards. I was unaware how widespread this distressing “bigot pornography” was. By using such a disturbing image Younge explicitly makes the connection between historical deaths by asphyxiation of innocent Black Americans by lynch mob, and the contemporary deaths by asphyxiation of innocent Black Americans by police officers.
The music pays homage to the soul concept albums of Younge’s favourite musical era, including their plush orchestrations. His arrangements, and indeed the whole sound of the title track The American Negro, is strongly reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971). There is a large debt to the work of Gil Scott-Heron here too, in particular, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised of 1970. The influence of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1970) – Younge loves psychedelic soul sound effects – can be heard in his Dying On The Run and there are also musical nods to Curtis Mayfield, one of Younge’s avowed favourite artists. The Last Poets, those contemporaries of Scott-Heron so admired by NWA, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest are obviously a massive inspiration too, there are clear echoes in Younge’s song Revolutionize. The Last Poets were themselves inspired by jazz, by the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and specifically by the assassination of Martin Luther King which catapulted them into political and artistic action, in the same way that the indifference of the establishment, President Trump and his followers to the murder of George Floyd led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
There are 26 tracks in all on the album, 11 of which are spoken word. Whereas Gaye, Scott-Heron and the Last Poets make their points by presenting words and music together, as an artistic whole, Younge adds purely spoken word tracks, providing what he calls “an unapologetic critique detailing the systemic and malevolent psychology that afflicts people of colour.” The music on the other hand is predominantly groovy and melodic. Some of the songs, like Mama (You Will Make It) and Light On The Horizon are positively optimistic – they serve as a counterbalance I suppose to the sufferings described in the spoken sections, and also suggest that Younge, despite everything, remains hopeful for the future.
One of his stated aims is to use “music as the medium to restore dignity and self-worth to my people”, though in a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, he qualified this. Younge explained that he would like listeners to properly get the main message – that race is a social construct with no biological truth – even if they don’t much care for the music. He concluded by cheerfully describing the whole project as “…my rock opera, my attempt to enlighten the world!”