Matana Roberts ~ COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis

COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis is essential listening.  It screams the past to the present, echoing Spike Lee’s cry at the end of Do the Right Thing:  “Wake up!”  We still haven’t woken up.  We still haven’t faced the sins of our ancestors, or tried to make reparations.  Instead, we’ve compounded our sins.

Racism is a global problem, but the United States has patented a particular brand, an umbrella that includes choke holds, unprovoked shootings, institutionalized poverty, gerrymandering, refugee limits and chants of “Send them back.”  One might say we’ve perfected the art of racism, creating a template for others to follow; and follow they have.

Roberts uses every communication tool at her disposal. She sings, screams, quotes and loops.  She folds in jazz, drone and sacred song.  She doesn’t preach as much as she presents.  In love with the positive aspects of the African-American experience, Roberts highlights the community, the faith, the endurance ~ all while underlining the sorrow, the fear, the rage.  Her saxophone and clarinet burst with the freedom of free jazz, offering transcendence through vibrant creation.  The band is all-new, ranging from Sam Shalabi (Land of Kush) to guitarist Hannah Marcus.  Jaw harp, fiddle, accordion and more engage in frantic interplay, rushing their notes into existence before they are extinguished like whitewashed history.

Liddie is an ancestor of Matana Roberts, her father killed by the Klan, her mother “disappeared.”  I’ve never been so frightened before, since mama told me to hide, those voices of those loud men getting ever more ferocious it seemed.  And sometime later mama dashed in and told me to run …  I am a child of the wind, even daddy used to say so, we would race and I would always win.  And he’d say run baby run, run like the wind, memory is a most unusual thing.  

That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?  Since then, we’ve had the civil rights movement and elected a black President.  These are old problems.

Two years ago in Charlotte, violence erupted at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Commenting on the violence, the United States president was quick to point out that there were “very fine people on both sides.”  In 2014, a New York city police officer held Eric Garner in a chokehold.  The incident was caught on camera.  Garner cried, “I can’t breathe” ~ the last words he ever spoke.  This summer ~ five years later ~ his assailant was not charged with any crime.

Where is the church in all this?  Roberts’ spiritual background is a running theme in her work: a reminder of the ways in which shared song reflects and reinforces identity, and the ways in which spiritual song connects to the original Biblical figures, sidestepping any human reinterpretation.  The album’s first words are reminiscences of attending a childhood worship service, sitting in the back but not understanding why.  The tone seems joyful, like a forced smile.  Over the course of the album, the words accumulate in a tsunami of sadness.  The house of God, they said, was not for the mixing of the races. Some of those voices I could make out: Mr. Hancock of the dry goods store, Mr. Hart of the livery stable, and even Daddy’s cousin Thompson McCall.

Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do you remember me? 

August, 2019.  Memphis.  A local diocese dismisses charges of racism against a priest who refuses to hire a housekeeper on the grounds that his dog “doesn’t like black people.”  August 2019.  Memphis.  Accusations of racism ~ and the backdraft to such accusations ~ roil the mayoral race.  “Day-doh,” sings Roberts, ironically echoing “Day-O,” a song the current Canadian Prime Minister once sang in blackface.  Fun fact:  there are more American governors who have worn blackface than there are American governors of color.

Roberts’ maternal grandmother stares directly from the cover, defiant.  What strength of will it must take to be a mere spark in the midst of a deluge.  And yet this spark is passed on, through family story and musical heritage, through blood, through grace, on to the current day. “I speak memory,” writes Roberts.  “I stand on the backs of many people, from so many different walks of life and difference, that never had a chance to express themselves as expressively as I have been given the privilege. In these sonic renderings, I celebrate the me, I celebrate the we, in all that it is now, and all that is yet to come or will be.”

And we’ll roll the old chariot along, and we’ll roll the old chariot along.

Richard Allen

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