Juneteenth: Celebrating 20 stories of Black artists from WXPN and World Cafe - WXPN
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Listening to the stories of Black artists is vitally important, not just during Black Music Month, but all year round.

This June, as the Black Lives Matter movement stretches across the country and around the world, elevating the voices and experience of Black creators takes on an additional layer of significance. In that spirit, we’ve taken some time this Juneteenth to compile 20 stories that appeared on The Key, World Cafe, and XPN’s airwaves over the past few years, centering Black artists.


Damien-Graves releases the introspective “Being a Black Man in America” — June 9, 2020

Trumpeter Jamal Damien, 21, and pianist Micah Graves, 22, are jazz students at Temple University, and released this expansive track centered around spoken-word vocals by Vince Anthony. Graves explains, “we wanted to share our feelings and our music on what it feels like to be a Black man living in a white norm, especially in a university.” [LINK]

Musiq Soulchild talks about finding his voice and escaping pigeonholing — June 8, 2020

The Philadelphia-born singer and songwriter talked with The Key’s Rahman Wortman about making his name as a defining voice of “neo-soul,” and then having that label chase him around for the next 20 years of his career. “It restricts you and puts you in that thing that people feel like you’re supposed to stay within,” he says. “And they don’t want anything else from you when you’re fully capable of doing other things.” [LINK]

Jake Blount on the influence of activism upon his music — June 1, 2020

A fiddle player and songwriter from Washington D.C., Jake Blount joined Ian Zolitor on the WXPN Folk Show to talk about how current events shape his musical outlook. “I have been involved in activism in the LGBTQ community since I was in high school,” says Blount. “And I’ve been reflecting a lot on those years, and how many friends just died, and how many people I was working with just died. It’s a battle of attrition in every possible way working in that sphere. So many of these songs revolve around grief, loss, being disempowered and disenfranchised.” [LINK]

Mavis Staples reminisces about crossing paths with legends, from Marvin Gaye to Mahalia Jackson – May 5, 2020

The great gospel and R&B singer Mavis Staples has crossed paths with legends, from Prince to Marving Gaye and all the way back to Martin Luther King. In a Checking In chat with WXPN’s Dan Reed, she talks about sharing the microphone with famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. “I was about 17, I was still in high school, and it was the best, it was a moment I will treasure and cherish all my life. I can still visualize it. Cause she joined me, someone helped her up to the microphone, got through the first verse, and then there I was on the same microphone with this great lady.” [LINK]

Meet the women of hip-hop’s early years in Philadelphia, from Queen Jo to Lady B — March 3, 2020

In a survey of the Philadelphia scene of the 1980s, John Morrison chats with some of hip-hop’s originators in the city, including Lady B, who not only was the first woman to release a commercial rap single (“To The Beat Y’all”), but who transitioned from performer to curator, becoming a longtime DJ on the Philly airwaves. “I took a job as a music director at WHAT (AM) and I’m trying to convince these folks that [rap] is the new thing and you gotta let me play it on the radio.” Lady B recalls. “[The response] was MASSIVE.”

Tierra Whack visits Philadelphia high schools to give back to their music programs — February 25, 2020

Philly hip-hop visionary Tierra Whack had whirlwind year and a half, seeing her star rise in the wake of her Whack World project, and the brilliant singles that followed it. She took a pause this fall to partner with Vans and donate musical equipment and $10,000 apiece to five different Philadelphia public schools; the Key visited as she made a presentation to South Philadelphia High. “I always want to be able to give back to the community,” Whack said. “It’s just like a surreal moment to be standing in front of these kids and giving something because I remember when I was just like them.” [LINK]

Michael Kiwanuka on embracing his heritage — December 20, 2019

British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka’s work encompasses atmospheric rock, emotive soul, and socially-conscious, observational lyrics. In this conversation with World Cafe’s Raina Douris, Kiwanuka also reflects on growing up as the song of Ugandan parents, feeling like an outsider among his peers, and ultimately embracing his heritage. “It’s something to be proud of — to have my name, Kiwanuka, as an immigrant and as an African,” he says. [LINK]

Musician and author Alex Smith of Solarized talks about the ongoing work of liberation — December 6, 2019

Alex Smith is a musician (frontperson of the excellent punk band Solarized), a visual artist, and a writer of sci-fi stories as well as music journalism on The Key and elsewhere. We talked about all those things in advance of a visual art show last fall, and Alex shared the sometimes-frustrating reality that the work towards a more equitable world never stops. “I have to continually justify why I write Black people, why I write queer people, why I write people with certain disabilities, why I write people who are overweight or fat or chubby, why I write interracial relationships,” says Alex. “I have to continuously justify why I write marginalized people. It’s like, can’t Black people just exist on starships? Do we have to explain why we are there to these white people who don’t understand why we’re there?” [LINK]

Brittany Howard talks about the fear behind stepping out as a solo artist — September 20, 2019

She’s built her name and profile as the indelible voice at the front of revered rock outfit Alabama Shakes over the past decade. But what happens when Brittany Howard steps away from the band and into the spotlight on her own. This wide-ranging interview with World Cafe’s Stephen Kallao look at her origins, her experience collaborating with famed names like Robert Glasper, and the intense pressure of making her solo debut. “I had about three months to deliver a record to the studio and I had pretty much like two songs,” she said. “You know, I was terrified.” [LINK

The artists of Philly’s Bad Apple Commune talking about making space for Black creators — August 28, 2019

The forward-thinking Philly collective Bad Apple Commune encompasses a range of artists and styles, from rap to experimental electronic to dream pop and indie rock. In this conversation with Alex Smith, its members reflect on finding strength in a community. “Being able to be ourselves in an exclusively Black space, sharing our educational resources, experiences, frustrations, political views, personal missteps, and [to have] support is such a commodity within itself,” says Black Costanza. “I’ve grown up in white towns and white music scenes without ever having had a space like this.” [LINK]

Gloria Gaynor shares her journey from disco sensation to devoted gospel singer — July 17, 2019

Known the world around for her chart-topping song of resilience, “I Will Survive,” singer Gloria Gaynor talks about how her road from the success of the 70s to present day was not an easy one, and how it’s led her to celebrate her faith. “People often think that when you say God has been good to you it means that you’ve had a wonderful, carefree life,” she told World Cafe’s Talia Schlanger. “Not so at all. But I say that because he’s brought me through so much unscathed.” [LINK]

Rhiannon Giddens on fighting cultural narratives and reclaiming Black culture in roots music — June 14, 2019

Songwriter and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens has long been an advocate for recognizing the role of Black innovation in American folk music, going back to her time in Carolina Chocolate Drops, and its origins at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering. In this World Cafe appearance with Francesco Turrisi, Giddens tells Talia Schlanger about the continuing need to fight for Black voices in folk and roots music conversations, which often favor white artists. “Mickey Mouse doesn’t wear white gloves just because,” Giddens says. “Minstrelsy is like shot through every aspect of American culture and is still with us.” [LINK]

Lizzo speaks on the importance of self-love and self-care, even on one’s hardest days — June 11, 2019

2019 was a breakout year for Minneapolis rapper and singer Lizzo, and she was able to reach massive audiences not just on the strength of uplifting songs, but on messages of inclusivity, body-positivity, and self-care. But in this conversation with World Cafe’s Talia Schlanger, she makes a point of noting that self-care and self-indulgence are not the same. “I think that there is something to emotions and vulnerability and expressing those emotions in a more vulnerable way to yourself that I think we haven’t tapped into,” she says. “And I think there’s also something to realizing that bad days are still self-loving days, and you can still practice self-care on bad days because these are the days that aren’t really glamorized or talked about or commercialized yet. … It gets real nitty and gritty, and it gets real deep and it gets real dark, and I think that that’s the next step to talking about self-love in this mainstream space.” [LINK]

Gary Clark Jr. talks about confronting racism in America on “This Land” — February 21, 2019

Three revered albums into his career, acclaimed singer-songwriter and guitarist Gary Clark Jr. can travel in whatever stylistic direction he wants. On last year’s This Land, that mean opening the album with its cathartic title track, screaming out about America’s racist past, and present. He told World Cafe’s Talia Schlanger how the song was written and recorded spontaneously in the studio after an unfortunate encounter with someone while he was out with his family. “It made me snap back to when I was a kid, I remember seeing confederate flags, people yelling out ‘n—-r’ to me and this and that. It took me back to that place. I was angry, and I didn’t want to have to explain to my child what that was. I didn’t want to ever have to.” [LINK]

How Philadelphia hip-hop heroes The Roots rose to a high-stakes challenge with their album Things Fall Apart — February 19, 2019

Philadelphia icons The Roots spent the first decade of their career precariously balancing the desire for artistic freedom, making nuanced hip-hop records that speak directly and deeply to the Black experience in Philadelphia and beyond, with commercial appeal, the need for the all-important hit. By the end of the 90s, they had come to a crossroads, a make it or break it moment, and John Morrison reflected on it in this essay for the 20th anniversary of their breakout album. “If Things Fall Apart didn’t break through and achieve the kind of sales the band and the business interests around them anticipated, they might find themselves dropped from their label, their names added to the long list of promising acts that simply couldn’t make it. Five years earlier, their former Geffen labelmate Kurt Cobain included in his infamous suicide note, a Neil Young quote that suggested that it was ‘better to burn out than fade away.’ For hip-hop’s number one band, a different question and potential set of outcomes hung over their heads. With Things Fall Apart it was evident that The Roots would have to either blow up or fade away.” [LINK]

J.S. Ondara shares his experience immigrating to North America from Africa, and finding his musical voice along the way — February 11, 2019

Singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, where he was in his words, “in the wild majority” and not at all ostracized because of the color of his skin. In this World Cafe conversation with Talia Schlanger, he shares how moving to Minneapolis, Minnesota to pursue a musical career was the first time he had the experience of being in the minority, and the experience of exclusion due to racism. In the past, he says, “If someone was acting towards me a certain way that was unpleasant and of a different race, I’d probably assume they were having a bad day, or they were a bad person. And then you sort of learn about the systemic part of that problem and how that affects people on the day to day, and other people’s perspective who have had to deal with for their lifetimes.” [LINK]

Kilamanzego on becoming a solo electronic artist after finding the punk scene marginalizing — March 9, 2018

Philadelphia’s Kilamanzago has captured the attention of the DIY community as a beatmaker and producer who makes vivid, immersive soundscapes. She made her introduction to us via this interview with Alex Smith, where she talks about origins as a player in punk bands, which she often found superficial and ultimately exlusionary. “The hardcore, punk scenes can be very marginalizing because no one practices what they preach. It’s always ‘Rah rah rah, I’m here for the unity,’ ‘rah rah rah women to the front, fuck sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia…’ but no one applies that in their daily lives. No one actually speaks up or out against things, even in conversations with their friends because they’re afraid of getting….well, ha ha, marginalized. Interesting paradox.” [LINK]

Orion Sun embraces the healing power of music — February 22, 2018

Philadelphia’s Orion Sun has been gathering praise for her label debut Hold Space For Me, which came out back in February on Mom + Pop Recordings. She spoke with The Key’s Madorne Lemaine in 2018 about her previous project, A Collection of Fleeting Moments and Daydreams, which confronts personal trauma with dreamlike pop. She talked about her hesitance to record such personal, vulnerable songs, saying “Only until I released the music did I realize that it had the ability to help people, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s so crazy because that energy…energy can’t be created or destroyed, right? But it’s definitely transferrable, and I’m so happy that music can do that.” [LINK]

Kamasi Washington on the importance of music education in reaching a new generation — November 24, 2017

For a lot of modern jazz music, there exists a fight to remain relevant. How does one do that in the time of Lil’ Uzi Vert and still retain jazz’s seminal Black roots? Acclaimed sax player Kamasi Washington reflected on that in a conversation with Alex Smith. “I think that just exposing them to jazz will bring [young Black kids] to the music. Bringing music back into the schools, that helps. Having a baseline connection with instruments, it does enrich people and gives them a taste for music that has a bit more enrichment to it. In the end people will listen to the music they like, but just by exposing young kids, giving them at least a foundational understanding of music, will make their musical tastes a bit more developed.” To Washington, “music is often controlled by people other than the musicians that make it. In the end, it’s not about the color of your skin, but more about your intentions.” [LINK]

Remembering Charles Bradley, and how music led him to a glorious new life — September 26, 2017

When Charles Bradley passed away in the fall of 2017, he definitely ended his life on a major high. His renown as a dynamic singer and incredible performer was at a new peak following the release of his record Changes, and he played shows for adoring crowds up to a couple months before his passing — including a set at the 2017 XPoNential Music Festival, one of his final performances. But his life had its share of struggle, too; he didn’t know his mother until he was eight years old, and he spent some of his teenage years homeless. In a conversation with David Dye, he remembers how chef training in the JobCorps program led him to being a performer, and singing at JobCorps centers around the country. He remembers his first gig: “When I look outside the stage I saw the house was full, and I wouldn’t come out. This guy came at me and gave me a push, and I came running out on that stage. Everybody started screaming and I said ‘woah.’ And then I got into it, and I ain’t put a mic down since.” [LINK]

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