Photo Credit King Texas
One of my only regrets from spending four years at a women’s college, aside from all the queer sex I inexplicably wasn’t having, is that I skipped out on an on-campus Janelle Monáe queer-fest concert to “enjoy the sunshine.” After three weeks – okay, three days – spent holed up in the library at the end of spring semester senior year, I packed up my Modern African Politics and Political Theory textbooks and headed for the park, pleased with myself for putting in the necessary effort to understand the intersection of race and gender in the 21st century.
I fell victim to a sad habit pattern of folks from white, upper middle class backgrounds: forgoing authentic cultural experiences in favor of something controlled and whitewashed. Looking back, it’s clear that only did I miss out on the college-wide bonding experience of a Janelle Monáe concert, but I also forfeited the opportunity to witness a real life discourse about race and identity politics with my peers through the medium of music.
Common and John Legend performed their powerful song “Glory” at the Oscars and won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Onstage was a mockup of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the two men were backed by a black chorus dressed to represent the Selma marchers. “The struggle for justice is right now,” they declared in their acceptance speech. The film SELMA was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, but Ava DuVernay, the director, was not. This is unsurprising, considering that the Oscar voters are primarily old, white men, and that sometimes we are more progressive on race than we are on gender in this country.
In Seattle, the black music scene has traditionally been a “separate but equal” situation. For the most part, local music created by black artists rarely reached a mainstream audience, Jimi Hendrix aside. White musicians co-opt the music of black artists, and commodify the sounds and cultural signifiers of hip hop culture. While a lack of white listeners has nothing to do with the quality of the music and does not connote failure, it does mean that many black musicians have lacked the loud voices of white fans demanding their music, which can result in greater difficulty getting gigs in bigger venues that allow them to be picked up by a label.
Historically speaking, music of resistance and hope has always had special resonance in this country. From the coded songs of the Underground Railroad to the anti-war songs of the 1960s, American music, perhaps more than any other place on earth, contains something entirely universal and entirely specific. White Americans may struggle to imagine themselves into the shoes of Trayvon Martin or Marissa Alexander, but when John Legend and Common sing “Glory,” or Tupac or Missy Elliott rap about empowerment, suddenly we find ourselves able to lean deeply into an emotional exploration of race, but from a safe political distance.
What does this reveal about the future of racism and storytelling in music?
Two of the raddest black human beings currently making wildly popular music in Seattle are Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons, known collectively as TheeSatisfaction, a self-described “galaxy-building” musical group. In the early stages of their career, TheeSatisfaction was self-financed and self-managed. After they were signed by Sub Pop Records, their first album awE naturalE dropped in 2012. Since then, Cat and Stasi have been delivering galactic music on a large scale to hungry listeners both in and outside of Seattle.
In 2013, the two women collaborated with Black Constellation at the Frye Museum to honor Octavia Butler. They appreciate being associated with Afrofuturism, and their songs explicate black feminism through an extraterrestrial lens. Although their music does have blues/hip hop signifiers (tri-tones, polyrhythms, call and response), it also utilizes modern synth percussion mixes, spoken word tracks, and almost cacophonous harmonies.
While coming from a specific black, queer, female lens (they describe their sound as “black energy, black women leaping oceans and continents in a single bound”), TheeSatisfaction’s vision of the future is not limited to this experience. It is this potent combination specificity along with a universe-centric sound that has allowed TheeSatisfaction to succeed in Seattle. Both presenting fairly gender-neutral, Cat and Stasi are a living, musical continuation of Octavia Butler’s work in gender-bending and racial reimagination.
And Seattle needs them.
Our city is not free from racism. The majority of bureaucratic local efforts toward racial equity, while fundamental to political and economic change, tend to lack the sort of imagination and creativity of entertainment that has historically been able to counteract and transform mainstream attitudes about race. I’m talking about storytellers, artists, musicians and those of a creative ilk (Gladys Bently and Bessie Smith, The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Octavia Butler’s science fiction stories).
Failing to be recognized by formal institutions is shitty (Ava, we love you!), and is a pretty accurate indication of industry-wide racism. However, Oscar-less films and Grammy-less albums by black artists are not necessarily banished to obscurity. In the hands of the right listeners, these works of art do change the landscape for black artists of the future.
That being said, TheeSatisfaction’s newest album EarthEE is the essence of intergalactic sound. Throughout this album, there is an overarching sense of zero gravity suspension. In comparison with their first album, EarthEE reaches deeper into outer space, and deeper into the rhythms and sounds of human history. EarthEE clearly demonstrates that TheeSatisfaction’s vision of the future isn’t limited to black femaleness, to his city, or even to this galaxy.
I can’t know how it feels to be two queer, black women making music and seeking truth in Seattle, but that’s sort of the point. Much of the music on this album felt unfamiliar to me, but not unfriendly. EarthEE is a timely and optimistic album that speaks directly to the current state of race in Seattle as well as our planet’s exploration of identity politics through art.