Underground music skilfully takes apart the image of a sweet pop girl posturing in music videos. And not just that: it also sends a clear signal to all members of society who face discrimination because of their sex, origin or sexual orientation.
Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska
I deliberately picked the title of a Christina Aguilera song as my starting line – released 20 years ago, it painted a sickeningly sweet picture of the alleged needs of contemporary girls, who tend to be marginalised in the patriarchal world. It could seem that much has changed over these two decades, but we still have a lot to work on. This was brilliantly pinpointed by Olga Tokarczuk, this year’s literature Nobel prize winner – the gown she wore when accepting the award alluded to the suffragette movement, and the writer not only underlined the emancipatory dimension of women, but also stressed how few of them have actually received the prize (only 53 women for 868 men since 1901!). In music, women and LGBTQ+ people still seem to be in the minority; when they send out a clear statement into the world, they’re noticed right away – and right away labelled as ‘the voice of women’. Often precisely because they’re still a minority, and not (yet) the norm. But for the four artists described below, this is mostly because their narratives about themselves, the society and its problems are consistent, original and engrossing.
In fact, the author of Flights and The Books of Jacob has a lot in common with the four musicians:intertextuality, combining a number of genres and creating a unique, inimitable style. ‘I don’t want to adhere to any genre,’ Kristin Hayter aka Lingua Ignota once said in an interview. This holds true not just for her, but also for the recent albums released by Yatta, Złe Oko (Evil Eye) and Moor Mother. First of all, these records literally scream with emotions and anger: at misogynist males, the society, preachers of racial bias and anyone who uses their platform to instruct others how they should live. Secondly, in each case we get a blend of different genres: from post-punk, opera and noise to hip hop and metal. Above all, however, these albums are filled with trauma, texts shouted straight from the gut, and horrific experiences – while remaining coherent and artistically convincing. Definitely no sweetness here.
After the success of All Bitches Die, Lingua Ignota came under the wing of the metal label Profound Lore Records. This almost automatically launched her into the metal world, which she quickly took by storm. She suffered from anorexia, is a survivor of abuse and has documented misogynist discourses – starting out with the narrative of a person who experienced physical violence, dominated by the misogynist world. There were some powerful lyrics on her previous record (like in the moving title track, He beat me till my teeth were scattered / Like pearls across the red, red ground). This time around, Lingua Ignota also brings out the heavy guns: referencing the opera, Baroque, and the work of Henry Purcell, she brings to mind associations with Diamanda Galas and creates a dense noise fabric with an occasional nod to metal. The album opens with a psalm (Hayter grew up in a Catholic community and sang in a church choir), but just a moment later, in “DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR”, evolves from a lyrical ballad towards a distorted, dirty vocal, a maelstrom of emotions and music. Her capslocked tracks scream at us even before we press play. The stories on Caligulaare emotionally loaded – filled with rage, regret, but also reflection, all the while maintaining a very theatrical formula, which engrosses the listener with both its narrative and dramatic tension. The classically trained artist has an impressive vocal scale – from sonorous calls, around which she skilfully builds space, through lyrical melodies, to growls which almost sound like she’s shouting herself hoarse. Sometimes her only sparse accompaniment is a grand piano (“FRAGRANT IS MY MANY FLOWERED CROWN”), at other times, she hits at you with full metal force (the moment the drums enter in “EMAY FAILURE BE YOUR NOOSE”).The dynamics spans the entire spectrum of dark emotions – Hayter brilliantly controls them, maintaining balance in the means used to show her respective moods. This post-modern collage is consistent to the bone and artistically thought-out – it’s almost hard to believe it lasts almost 70 minutes. Hayter’s survivor anthems, addressed to those who went through hell brought upon them by others, bring a sense of catharsis, and musically shake me to the core.
Where Lingua Ignota vented her emotions in a lyrical form, Moor Mother is raw and aggressive. It’is hard to move around in this American reality and hard to reconcile oneself to it. Moor Mother spins her own narrative about the situation of African Americans: she visits cotton plantations and recounts the deaths of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins, which sparked the 1992 protests in Los Angeles. This is the voice of the oppressed – of the black people who still cannot enjoy the same rights as the white population. Aesthetically, her point of departure is hip hop, spiritual jazz and improvisation – in interviews, she admits she feels most attached to the latter, which may be heard in Irreversible Entanglements. She also plays with The Bug and London Contemporary Orchestra.
The aforementioned “Repeater” is built around strings, samples and vocals in the foreground. She sounds like a preacher there: We hold death over our head / We hold life over our head (…) I hope you choke on all the memories / No light, just insecurities, false hope and enemies. “Don’t Die” is a noise-punk lament – first sung, then shouted in despair. “After Images” is a beat-based, industrial number, while in “Shadowgrams”, Moor Mother cautions that they have killed our heroes and we forget their names. She keeps reminding us about the other, different narrative about history and identity. In turn, in “Passing of Time”, where she is joined by Juçara Marçal from Metá Metá, she simply states that: My grandmama, my great-grandmama, my great-great-grandmama, they picked so much cotton they saved the world. With the rhythmical accompaniment of percussion in the background, she warns against trying to erase their roles from history books. She builds the context through field recordings: in “Cold Case”, we hear the voice of Amal al-Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer famous for her protest songs, while in the opening of “Engineered Uncertainty”, Paul Robeson sings Nobody knows the trouble I seen, which is drowned out in a mix of scream and noise. Each track was produced by someone else: Mental Jewelry, with whom she recorded Crime Waves two years ago, Justin Broadrick from Jesu, King Britt or Giant Swan. The guestlist is packed full of names, hip hop style, but it’s not this genre, it’s not even noise, but perhaps punk, owing to the rawness and aggression, the short and succinct compositions.Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes may be half the length of Lingua Ignota’s record, but it’s equally intense and honest. Camaye Ayewa has something of Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron – a flair for creating her own unique language as well as a narrative filled with a collage of images and thoughts on the situation of African Americans in the U.S. You can’t mistake her for anyone else, just like you can’t forget her story, brimming with anger – the type of anger that makes you want to act rather than spread your arms in a gesture of helplessness.
The opening of Yatta’s album reminds me of the warm voice of Matana Roberts, although stylistically this is something completely different. I soon lose these associations, though, when the artist introduces reverb, modulates their voice and plays with its different timbres. Wahala sounds almost like a radio drama, again offering a complex, multi-layered narrative. The title means ‘trouble’ in Krio and Nigerian Pidgin, and this is indeed the focus of the entire album. A bubbling can filled with musical inspirations and accompanied by a story about problems with social, racial and sexual identity experienced by a person with their roots in Sierra Leone. From the noisy “A Lie”, a duet-like dialogue the artist holds with themselves, to the rhythmical, electrified, groovy “Blues”. From gender stereotypes, to which they refer in “Cowboys” – Cowboys are black and techno (…) Black girls are like Pokemon, gotta catch ’em all – to poetic sing-song in the beautiful “Sulivan Place”. Yatta uses drones generated based on effects, loops their vocals and sounds, records multi-channelled screams and poetic improvisations – the artist builds a psychotic atmosphere, searching for release. Yet it is not just their voice that really delivers here (the amazingly multiplied vocals in “Shine”), but also the condensed electronics and deconstructed ideas that span folk, blues, hip hop and r’n’b. The most memorable track is “Francis” – a thing of sheer beauty with the little melody and duplicated vocals in the foreground. I think Wahala is the most lyrical album of the four. A sound collage that goes beyond genre boundaries, a baggage of experience and emotions that have no set form, as they can be recounted in various ways. A diary of traumatic events – filled with anger and determination, but also uncanny charm, like in “Underwater, Now”, which offers a finale that is as stunning as it is surprising. Technological novelties are combined with delicate vocals, electronics with acoustic folk and blues – this bipolar character of the album brilliantly conveys the quandaries and everyday experience of a transsexual person, and does so in an amazingly captivating way.
Lastly, there is also Złe Oko, or Evil Eye – a project devised by Polish-born Olga23, who currently lives in Norway. Olga is a collage artist (you can get a taster of her work in the video to Wojna / War). She played bass in the now non-existent band Dno, and I found out about her from the writer and musician Konstanty Usenko.Cicuta (hemlock) is a deadly poison, an extract from a plant used in antiquity and the Middle Ages. My first association here was with Siksa, although Złe Oko isn’t as punk and chaotic, the storyline is more structured.This material is raw, and that’s how it sounds: raw, dirty, industrial and metallic. A musical apocalypse, at times literally vomiting all things obnoxious (samples in “Five reasons why I left my country” mixed with homophobic and misogynist statements said by politicians). The dark layer of electronics meets beats and grooves, against which Olga screams her observations: about the still-strong echoes of war, human instincts, or the stupidity prevalent on the media. She creates a peculiar sound collage, a story about the domination of patriarchal patterns imposed by misogynists (You scream with clenched fists / that [AS1] she’s weak, she’s stupid / and she’s got saggy tits / She should fuck off to the kitchen / This is the hammer of witches). The longest, title track is also the most powerful: a quasi hip hop beat and growing wall of sound serve as a background for a litany on the perception of women and diminishing their value in society, with some brilliant punchlines (Torn between a whore / and Holy Mary (…) You pray for us / Want to lead us by the hand / Help us leave the path of sins / By kissing the feet / of the Blessed Virgin). It could seem that the title Cicuta is a woman who introduces disorder, disrupts communities, who can be made to take the blame (see the never-ending debates concerning rape), who shouldn’t have the right to discuss abortion or defend her rights on the streets. Złe Oko (Evil Eye) talks about it in an evocative, dirty way.
In fact, this is what all four artists have in common: these records represent the struggle for women’s rights, for the rights of victims of abuse, of ethnic and sexual minorities. Such statements may really stir up the hornets’ nest[AS2] , so let’s just hope they resonate as long as possible. It’s high time, too: in 2019 you really can’t force women (and transsexuals) into the simple formula of “she wants this and that”. Quite the contrary – they keep pushing the boundaries and introducing new rules of the game.
Lingua Ignota, Caligula, Profound Lore Records
Moor Mother, Analog Fluids Of Sonic Black Holes, Don Giovanni Records
Yatta, Wahala, PTP
Złe Oko, Cykuta, Pan y Rosas Discos