Relexifying the Canon of Black Music
Nicholas Payton with Vilde Aaslid
Nicholas Payton’s once-fiery blog (nicholaspayton.wordpress.com) has been quiet lately. After his provocative 2011 rejection of the word “jazz” in favor of Black American Music, Payton has mostly retreated from the volatile jazz internet.
But he has not abandoned his polemic: he has just shifted medium. Payton’s latest release, the extended Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, traverses styles from across the black musical spectrum. Throughout, Payton features spoken word samples from musical legends like Max Roach and luminaries of Africana thought like Dr. Greg Kimanthi Carr. In short, it is Payton offering an album-length explanation of Black American Music.
Payton was recently in town for a fierce run with the Kevin Eubanks Quartet at Birdland. He sat down with me across the street from the stalwart venue to talk music, politics, and the return of the 1990s.
Vilde Aaslid (Rail): Most of your recent albums, like Letters, Numbers, and Textures have been assembled out of small pieces. But with Afro-Caribbean Mixtape it sounds like you are trying to tell a bigger story.
Nicholas Payton: With Afro-Caribbean Mixtape I wanted to tell a narrative that would illustrate how rhythms came from Africa and through the colonial era that funneled through the Caribbean: places like Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, and on up through the northernmost part of the Caribbean, which is New Orleans. There, because enslaved Africans weren’t allowed to speak their native languages, they developed a new language in the blues and the work song, and that was essentially the genesis of what became pop music and its first star was Louis Armstrong. From the times before recording on up through the latest artists in the pop field, be it we’re talking Drake or Rihanna or Katy Perry or Taylor Swift, that tribal African DNA exists encoded and embedded in the music. Even in the simple rock back beat, Africa is in there. I’ve also been a proponent of shunning the use of the categorization of jazz, because I think it separates itself from the popular idiom, and I think as a result pop music has lost its roots. Because of this lack of connection, they don’t see the ancestry and the elders of this tradition as part of who they are. With this album I hope to rejoin what a lot of these false labels, like jazz, sought to separate. I hope to connect all these black musics and do my part to restore the broken branches on this tree and reconnect some of these links to the roots. Basically, my mission is to restore what genre seeks to separate. I’m, in my way, trying to rewrite history.
Rail: You say in the liner notes that “we aren’t born a race, we are raced,” and I think that resonates a lot with this conversation about genre. So maybe in the same way music is not born with a genre it is genre-ed. Do you a see a parallel between these processes?
Payton: Totally. I am in general anti- any kind of false construct, anything that creates dualism or separate things that are meant to be approached more holistically. I think these distortions and disconnections create chasms in our society that are the genesis of war, political strife, marginalization, and violence. Because people see themselves as at odds. And then there’s elitism, the human instinct to want to indulge in a hierarchical system where I’m better than you because of XYZ reason. We don’t see ourselves as tied to a larger whole. If we thought more in terms of communal structures there wouldn’t be a need to separate ourselves, to feel better than someone else.
Rail: So the word “jazz” has implicit within it a hierarchy?
Payton: Jazz sells itself short when it bills itself as this super intellectual music that’s above your understanding. I am choosing to separate myself from this elitist idea that we’re better than you, this is not for you. This is communal music at its essence. I grew up in a town where I saw that directly from the second line parade where this so-called jazz music was viewed as communal music. You could set up in any neighborhood and have a band start marching up the street and everyone from the two-year-old to the eighty-year-old knows what body movements correspond to what kind of rhythms and everybody’s sort of in sync.
Music is the most direct way to break through some of these false constructs. It is pretty much our only chance at healing these divides which serve to undermine humanity at its best. Actually, it’s even more than humanity. I’ve been getting a bit of this from Octavia Butler, who doesn’t even identify as human. She feels that not only is race a problem, but humanity itself is a problem that desires a hierarchical structure. As long as we continue to identify as human then there can be no true liberation. Even if we do away with race there’s going to be some sort of classist system that seeks to oppress one class and give supremacy and privilege to others.
Rail: You use the spoken word samples in a lot of different ways on the album, but in “Relexification,” it seems like you treat it as sound as much as lexical.
Payton: Exactly. Someone asked me why did I hire a DJ when I could have treated the samples myself. I wanted it to be music, I didn’t want it to just be words. I wanted to hire somebody who could use these words rhythmically in a way that would only enhance what was being said.
Rail: Could you talk a bit about Ernie Smith, who speaks on that track?
Payton: Ernie Smith is one of the first to create the idea of Ebonics. We relexify the English language to our African linguistic patterns. Words are more than just a tool of communication; how we think is formed in language. And that’s why when people attempt to colonize another usually the first thing they make them do is to stop speaking their language. Because if you speak as those who oppress you do, you begin to think like them.
Rail: Relexification as a concept seems like it resonates with some of your ideas about Black American Music.
Payton: It’s rewriting the false narratives that we’ve been sold, as far as being slaves. To have history tell it, black people’s history started as being slaves. In fact, we are not slaves, we were enslaved. That’s a big difference. Changing the words that we use to describe things affects how we feel about things. If we change those words, if we relexify our thoughts and our actions, we begin to peel away at the false layers and get to the core of who we truly are. So yeah, that’s a centerpiece of the album, because basically the album is my attempt to relexify the canon of black music.
Rail: Some of the voices that are on the album and some of the aesthetics of the liner notes remind me of a kind of mid-’90s afro-centricity.
Payton: The font I used was actually from the TV show Martin. I knew I wanted to use that font, or like School Daze, Spike Lee, because I felt that was a strong time in black culture. In the ’80s I was really deepening my understanding of black nationalism. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I was rebelling against the system. And you know, some things change and some things stay the same. In some sense I’m still that same pro-black kid. If you look at the picture on the package, I have a medallion with the African symbol, with red green and black. Those things were popular when a lot of groups like Public Enemy were taking off the bling, taking off the rope chains, and wearing symbols that were made of earth and stone and leather, to reclaim this primal African sensibility. I felt like that was a very fertile, good time for black culture, and seeing the trend of the ‘90s come back I thought maybe there’s a way to bring some of that other consciousness back into fruition.
Rail: A lot has happened in the world since you first put forward the idea of Black American Music in 2011. I wonder if you could reflect a bit on what it means in 2017.
Payton: I took a lot of heat for the things I said. I kind of had the misfortune, as many artists do, of being ahead of my time. So now I’m just giving space for others. And I think that’s a big part of why this album came through me in the way that it did. I never could quite figure out how to make my music political, because to me music was just beautiful. I wanted to keep that the way that it was, and I was able to express these things through words. So I think that because I hadn’t been writing a lot I figured out a way to create music that really was an overt political statement. Almost like shutting a piece of my expression off, it reared itself in another way.